Category Archives: Opinion

Mooting Google Sky

[Update 2007.08.22: Google Sky is now a reality. Read more here.]

Alberto Conti, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Center in Baltimore, writes on his blog about the potential for using the technology behind Google Earth to help visualize the wealth of astronomical information that’s available but not easily accessible, currently.

Alberto’s writes that he suggested “Google Sky” to John Hanke when they met a few weeks ago, and that he will be getting in touch with Google Earth VP of engineering Brian McClendon in the next few days to organize to set up a visit to STSC for some brainstorming. Ah, the combined wonders of blogging and search — Brian, you can head on over to Alberto’s blog now and preview his pitch:-)

Alberto also writes:

In my proposal, I also suggested we should look at planetary mapping implementations of Google Sky and at Google Starship, a flyby among galaxies (using redshift information)! Google-Simulations and Google-Wormholes are just around the corner! :-P

Yes, but what kind of ads is Google going to sell alongside Google Sky? The “problem” is that Mars currently lacks holiday destinations, real estate markets and shopping malls. There is plenty of incentive to provide mass browsing tools for Earth, but when it comes to space, I see more room for a government role or an open-source role. The audience for space, unfortunately, is not unlike the audience for opera — refined in taste but small in number.

(That said, I’d all be for a 3D Mars simulation game à la Second Life where we all get to settle and build on a terraformed Mars.)

PS. The free and multiplatformed Celestia is a great appplication, and comes with its own addon repository.

ArcGIS Explorer roadshow: London

Andrew Hudson-Smith over on Digitally Distributed Environments is our eyes and ears for an ESRI presentation given by David Maguire in London on Friday.

Maguire ran through the beta of ArcGIS Explorer: Andrew comes away very impressed. Those who see and use the closed beta of ArcGIS Explorer are reporting it to be in a different league to Google Earth, with analytical tools galore and features such as facade mapping.

Facade mapping will have to come to Google Earth, then, because I suspect Andrew will focus his 3D authoring efforts on whichever platform makes them look best.

But more broadly, what I think we’re seeing is an impending differentiation of roles for the different applications: Google Earth is bringing geospatial browsing to the masses, including people who until now might not have known their latitude from their longitude. ESRI ArcGIS Explorer, on the other hand, looks like it will democratize GIS among professionals who until now would have outsourced the GIS aspects of their projects.

Google Earth, then, will likely continue to focus on high-resolution content and social features, with time browsers and rich base layers so that it is the ideal presentation tool for 3D and spatial data authored elsewhere. ESRI ArcGIS Explorer will become Arc Desktop Light, a deft blocking move that raises the bar on entry by others into the GIS analytics market by making a subset of features — already developed and paid for — free.

The relationship between the two tools is likely to be virtuous, in that each enlarges demand for the other. If we’ve finally reached a point where improvements in computing power, internet access speeds and software authoring prowess are creating a tipping point for GIS as a mass market phenomenon, then the rising tide/lifting ships cliché will for once be apt.

Google Earth inspires France’s Géoportail

Geoportail_logo.jpgVia Le Blogue du CFM de Guadalajara comes news that France’s National Geographic Institute (IGN) has just announced Géoportail (“geoportal”), a mapping initiative that will make all of France available at 50cm resolution in a Google Maps-like GUI starting this summer. “3D navigation” is promised for 2007, without specifying how.

Over on IGN’s site you can download the press kit (PDF, French) whose introductory text reveals an interesting motivation behind the initiative (translated):

The world in the palm of your hand… What about France?

Navigating from Broadway to Bankok with a click of the mouse, comfortably installed in front of the computer screen… The 9.5 million French households with broadband connections to the internet (and those all over the world) last summer were able to practice flying around the planet with “Google Earth”.

This site [sic.] has demonstrated the strong interest by our citizens for this type of navigation and for access to a great variety of information. The National Geographic Insitute had to respond to this demand.

The images will be free to view, as will 1:100,000 topo map overlays, but 1:25,000 topo map overlays would require the purchase of a licence.

I’m not yet sold on this project. There is no mention of open standards, for example. And just as the existence of Google Print prompted France to agitate for a similar European project, Géoportail seems aimed at ensuring France is not viewed exclusively via “Anglo-saxon” geobrowsers.

Ideally, the focus should be on the content, with Géoportail merely a default viewer of data that is also served in open source formats for whoever wants it, and for any geobrowser. And why not licence a copy of the database to Google, Microsoft, NASA and ESRI at favorable rates, to spread geographic knowledge of France? For a state agency like IGN to lock content into one browser would be to repeat the mistake of Minitel, which so retarded the uptake of the real Internet in France.

KML for ArcGIS Explorer, but how much?

Geography 2.0 points to an ESRI FAQ about the upcoming ArcGIS Explorer, a geobrowser that will compete with Google Earth.

The FAQ confirms that Google Earth’s native KML and KMZ file formats will be supported by ArcGIS Explorer, but there is one question I have yet to see answered:

Will ArcGIS Explorer do network links?

This matters, because while deploying KML files, it is often easier to hand people a network link which then fetches the actual updatable file. If ArcGIS Explorer were to only support the rendering of KML, and not the network link functionality, then we’d have a problem: Would we then be more likely to shun the use of network links when we author KML? Or would we produce different versions for different geobrowsers? Today’s HTML and CSS producers face similar dilemmas.

(This is a purely speculative post, but perhaps somebody who’s actually used a recent version of ArcGIS Explorer could answer this question definitively? My hunch is that only the geometry component of KML will be supported by ESRI.)

Resident Activism

Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood may soon get a major development, “Atlantic Yards”, replete with Frank Gehry-designed stadium. But how major is it, exactly? That’s what Keegan wonders over at Invisible Man:

As a resident who will directly feel the impact of the development surrounding my home, I haven’t felt that I have seen an accurate portrayal of the sheer scale of this project, in the context of the existing neighborhood. Enter Google Earth.

He uses the developer’s own plans and stated heights to make the buildings available in Google Earth, so that they can viewed surrounded by Google Earth’s default existing buildings. And the proposed buildings do indeed look huge.


You’d imagine that developers themselves might want to release well-crafted KML models of their proposed developments, in order to drum up buzz and prestige. Unless, of course, the likely impression is that they’re overbearing.

Rants and Ramblas

Trevor, an Irish polymath residing in Barcelona (and fellow traveler, blogwise) unEarths, so to speak, a little campaign to switch Google Earth’s toponymy in Catalonia from Castillian to Catalan. He engages the main conspirator in this thread on Google Earth Community’s bulletin board, and it makes for an esoteric but fascinating little debate about the aspirations of the world’s smaller languages.

Getting into Google Earth, it would appear, is as desirable and difficult as getting into one of Barcelona’s better nightclubs. And I can definitely vouch for Barcelona’s nightclubs.

Weekend brainstorms

Time spent with Google Earth seems to have led to some interesting bainstorming among certain bloggers…

Londoner Dan Hill of City of Sound wishes for the ability to browse through time and to listen to sounds in Google Earth. As for the former, a time browser is coming — KML has (undocumented) time tags and a time browser has already been demonstrated in public by Google Earth CTO Michael Jones. As for the latter… I don’t know of any existing layer that links up to soundscape files, but this is something that’s trivial to make these days. Anyone have a library of such files, georeferenced? It’d be a cool project, certainly if connected to some kind of georeferenced QuickTime VR library for the complete immersive experience.

Alan Glennon moots a camera or camera setup that would not only record coordinates, but also its tilt and heading, importable into Google Earth via the <LookAt> tag. (Hey, why we’re at it, why not give Google Earth a zoom slider, just like a camera lens… No, not really.) He calls it “geovantaging”. Quite serendipitously, last Friday saw the release of GETrackr, which lets you geotag photos with exactly this kind of information, albeit manually, in Google Earth, in the absence of such cameras existing.

(An aside: Imagine for a moment that such cameras become ubiquitous. You could then use them en masse to “paint” the sides of Google Earth’s currently matte gray 3D virtual buildings with their real surfaces. Digitally Distributed Environments has a demo up of this technique, using Microsoft Local’s bird’s eye view painted onto a 3D example. The one tricky bit: the camera lens’s angle of view (wide angle to tele-lens) would have to be the same as Google Earth’s or else automatically adjusted via software when used.)

Alasdair Allan at The Daily Ack takes Alan’s ideas and wonders, what else could the camera do while taking the picture? He proposes some automatic data mining about the location you’re at, and perhaps live uploading to the net, viewable in Google Earth.

Meanwhile, Italian Cristian Contini has a picture up of when dinosaurs roamed the Google Earth.

[Update 21:11 UTC: Forgot to add a link to a post I had in mind for the brainstorming theme: Webby nominated World Changing blog asked its readers what else they’d like to see portrayed in Google Earth, and they got a load of suggestions back.]