HeyWhatsThat: An impressive panorama generator

Just when I thought I was in danger of becoming a jaded customer of the mass mapping space, here’s a site that effortlessly returns me to a state of slack-jawed wonder: HeyWhatsThat.

What’s that, HeyWhatsThat? it’s an automatic summit-perspective generator for any peak in the continental US. You can request the view from any mountain top, and HeyWhatsThat will use a database of summits and a DEM to show you what the view looks like from there, and annotate it for you.


But that’s just the beginning. You can click anywhere on the horizon of the generated view to see its corresponding spot on Google Maps. Then, click on “show profile” to show the elevation of the path from the summit to that point. You can turn on a “visibility” cloak in Google Maps which paints red all those areas that are visible from your perspective. And you can also turn on contours on Google Maps.

Then, click on the Google Earth link for a head trip. You get a network link showing all public panoramas. Turn one on, and you get an automatically generated overlay showing all visible areas from that summit in red, and an overlay showing the extent of your horizon. If you think this is too good to be true, as I did, just zoom on in onto the summit, and have a look around — everything is in red, just as it should be from that perspective.


If you request your own panorama, the options are very well thought out. For example, when you choose a location on the map, you get given the opportunity to move to the highest nearby spot, so that you don’t accidentally get a generated view from just below the summit. Very nice.

One of the developers, Michael Kosowsky, writes that they’re working on making HeyWhatsThat work globally. As for browser compatibility: “The web site has been developed against Mozilla Firefox 1.5 and 2.0, and seems to run reasonably well with Internet Explorer 7. Other browsers may have problems.”

if this doesn’t unleash the inner geeky-nature-lover in you, nothing will:-)

Geophoto (for Mac)

Ovolabs’ Geophoto is a new stand-alone virtual globe application for the Mac that lets you georeference and visualize photo collections. These collections can be your own iPhoto albums, Flickr images tagged by group, author or keyword, or even “photocasts”, photo RSS feeds. If you are familiar with iTunes or iPhoto, you will immediately recognize the Mac-standard GUI for media management. There is practically no learning curve to this application.


And yet I’m conflicted about Geophoto. It is exceptionally simple, but it costs $50 for far less functionality than what you get in Google Earth (and its network link). That’s quite an audacious proposal.

So, quickly, my likes and dislikes about this application:


  • It is goodlooking and it is simple to use. The use of a Mac-standard interface for a virtual globe is well done.
  • It is a standalone application, so it can do nifty visualization tricks like having photo popups merge as you zoom out.
  • It does not require an internet connection to run, so you can view your photos offline, if you like.
  • You can have multiple globes open at the same time.


  • In the age of Google Earth and NASA World Wind, the resolution of this globe is terrible. Three years ago, this would have been impressive. And while I sympathise that getting high resolution imagery is a very expensive proposition, that’s the competitive landscape we find ourselves in now, and have been in since June 2005.
  • No layers other than the physical Earth. No roads, clouds, cities, etc… No height mesh (DEM) data either.
  • Georeferencing is a very coarse exercise. You have to do a search for a place, and if it finds it, you then get to set your photo to that place. There is no way to georeference a photo manually. Not that there is much use for such a feature, as the map is so coarse. (BTW, the search feature queries Geonames.org, so you have to be online to georeference. The imagery is a local copy of NASA’s Blue Marble Next Generation.)
  • There are no good navigation controls. You can’t pan and tilt, for example. And when the globe does move to a specific photo, it does so abruptly, without the organic feel that Google Earth or NASA World Wind have.

So who is this for? My Dad? He’s an avid photographer and not so much a technologist, but even he’d like to show what street corner a photo was taken from, rather than what city. People that are really into Maps and Macs? They’ve already discovered Google Earth, Flickr, and the different ways of using them together.

And it’s not as if the geospatial Mac market beyond Google Earth is a wasteland. If you want lots of layers full of context, there is Matt Giger’s EarthBrowser ($24). If you want to georeference your photos, you can use Google Earth and Geotagger (free), or your GPS device and Geotagging Automator Actions ($15). You can also export your georeferenced iPhotos to KML with iPhotoToGoogleEarth (free). And if you want to browse Flickr photos in Google Earth, there’s Trippermap ($10/year).

In other words, much as I like the idea of Geophoto, I don’t think it’s feasible as a $50 application.

Links: LIMA, gCensus, Jobo PhotoGPS, Geograph

  • The Map Room flags a great press release: The US National Science Foundation, USGS, NASA and the British Antarctic Survey are collaborating on the Landsat Image Mosaic Of Antarctica (LIMA) a project that is part of International Polar Year. The result will be the detailed dataset of Antarctica to date in the public domain, and I can’t wait to see this show up in Google Earth and NASA World Wind — though it will take a few months yet before all is ready.
  • This has been making the rounds of Slashdot and Co., and with good reason: Imran Haque’s gCensus, a US census visualization tool that involved him first writing a Perl library for turning census data into shapes in KML — now open source and part of CPAN as Geo::KML::PolyMap. Imran explains the process in this ExtremeTech article. You can also just dive in. He’s planning to turn much more of the code into open source.
  • Yet another GPS georeferencer for digital cameras: The Jobo PhotoGPS. The write-up of a pre-production model is a bit breathless, but this is what I think it is: An autonomous GPS device that you affix to the flash shoe of a digital SLR camera, so that when you takes a picture, it knows to save the time and location. No, this data does not get written into the EXIF data of the pic in the camera — you have to do that later, on your computer, after both the pics and the GPS data are downloaded. Also, the device promises to have an extremely long life being “only active when needed,” though that makes me wonder how long you need it to find satellites everytime you want to shoot. The above link comes with images.
  • Barry Hunter has upgraded the network link associated with Geograph, the collaborative project for photographing every square kilometer of the British Isles. The KML is all region-based now; writes Barry, “in this way the view starts depicting a course overview of the current coverage, zooming in reveals more detail until pictures themselves become visible”.
  • I love it when a story gets written along the lines of “X finds Y using Google Earth.” In today’s installment, X = a Dutch archaeologist and Y = the lost underwater castle of Hulckesteijn. The story in English, the original story in Dutch, the link to Google Maps, and the link to Google Earth. [Update: Not so fast, says a follow up article, in Dutch. Is too, is the response to the response.]
  • Not sure what this article in National Geographic is getting at: Terrorist Use of Google Earth Raises Security Fears. It all sounds a bit alarmist, and its credibility is marred by this:

    For many locations the images have a resolution as fine as 49 feet (15 meters) per pixel—enough to see individual streets, distinguish buildings, and even make out the color of automobiles.

    It leaves you wondering if the writer understands the notion of resolution… In National Geographic of all places!

  • Valery Hronusov strikes again: The Atlas of Moscow, 1853, as a superoverlay.

Links: Sardegna3D, 3D icons, 3D Warehouse for builders

  • TechCrunch agrees: Google’s YouTube caving in to Turkish censors is a terrible idea and a precedent for Google’s other user-generated communities — with Google Earth Community especially vulnerable to the demands of paranoid governments.
  • Sardegna3D (beta) is a 3D client for Windows that lets you browse the Italian island of Sardinia. It works well, though the GUI looks a lot like a copy of Google Earth 3 (not that there is anything wrong with that:-) Just as with France’s 3D Géoportail client, I still don’t see the merit of shackling a localized dataset to a specific client, especially if the client does not provide enhanced functionality. Much better is to free the data and place it inside the wider context of a global viewer like Google Earth or NASA World Wind.
  • This is really worth a look: bdkowert.com builds a 3D icon for the KML files showing FON’s wifi hotspots (which you can download under the POIs tab). What I like about it is that the use of 3D is not a gimmick in this case, but adds information. Download it from Google Earth Warehouse and check it out for yourself.


  • A story about the world’s most clueless teacher. She wants to block Google Maps at school.
  • Construction behemoth McGraw-Hill Construction has started putting its Sweets portfolio of 3D models of building products into 3D Warehouse. Here is the press release, and here is the collection in 3D Warehouse, which comes with more info:

    Sweets is in the process of building the largest collection of professional grade 3D building product models that are easy to find and download. In May, 2007, these high quality models will be organized by the CSI MasterFormat indexing familiar to Sweets users. As we build this collection, please come back and check its progress. The grand launch occurs at the American Institute of Architects annual convention May 3 – May 5, 2007.

  • Indian journalist and blogger Shiv Aroor is taking screenshots of Indian military bases in Google Earth and posting them online preemptively, “in case Google does buckle and censor its eyes over India. That would be such a tragedy.” (Via Sacred Media Cow)
  • 3PointD posts notes of the mapping panel at SXSW, chaired by Rev. Dan Catt.

Google Earth adds NZ roads, “global awareness” layers


There’s new stuff in the default layers: New Zealand gets road data, the World Wildlife Fund gets to georeference its many conservation projects, and the mountaintop-removal coal mines in Appalachia get before-and-after overlays.


In the existing layers, National Geographic expands its series of georeferenced articles and photographs to include new regions, including both Antarctica and the Arctic region.

Most other existing default layers get updated content. All the details are in this post at Google Earth Community.

Skyline/Google judgment: Dance != Dancer

Google Copyright Blog has a link to the summary judgment in the Skyline vs. Google patent dispute issued on March 7, below a history of the dispute and a overview of the decision.

The upshot: Skyline’s patent doesn’t describe how the Google Earth client receives data and renders it on the screen. The overall function of what Skyline’s and Google’s systems do may be similar, but that’s not what a patent covers. Here is the nut graph of the decision:

Skyline has not identified any “thing” that corresponds to the renderer as defined in the ‘189 patent. Skyline admits as much in its Corrected Memorandum in Support of Its Motion for Summary Judgment of Infringement, when it accuses Google of “quibbling that these three functions [of the renderer] are not performed by the same ‘logical entity’ or ‘object’.” The demand that a “renderer” be identifiable as a discrete entity of some sort is not a quibble, however; it is fundamental to a finding of infringement. The ‘189 patent describes a particular way of structuring a system for streaming three-dimensional data. Not any system that achieves the same result is covered. To succeed on its motion for summary judgment, Skyline must show that the accused Google Earth products infringe on the particular system described in the ‘189 patent. The “renderer” is at the core of that system. The failure to identify some thing that performs the functions of the renderer is fatal to Skyline’s motion for summary judgement on Claim 1.

A footnote is even clearer:

Skyline’s ultimate position, as presented at the summary judgment oral argument, appears to be that the Google Earth Client, a “software application, running on the local processor,” itself “performs the three renderer functions.” [Skyline Slide #29] However, Skyline also suggests that unspecified pieces of the Google Earth Client source code perform the functions of the renderer, suggesting a more granular definition. [Id.] In either formulation, the Skyline position, which I reject, erroneously conflates the functions of the renderer with the separate thing that is a renderer. This takes considerable and unwarranted poetic license with the Markman construction and, as I noted during the hearing on the motions, calls to mind Yeats’ question: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” W. B. Yeats, Among School Children, THE COLLECTED POEMS OF W. B. YEATS, 215, 217 (Richard J. Finneran ed., rev. 2d ed. 1996).

Avi Bar-Ze’ev has a detailed dissection of the judgment, which he lauds (and which is well worth a read).

Links: GoogleLit Trips, Barry Hunter’s PHP class for KML, Itidarod


  • What literature lends itself especially well to georeferencing? Travel literature, of course. And there is no better travel literature than The Aeneid and The Oddysey. Both are available at GoogleLit Trips, a wonderfully single-minded website devoted to turning great works of literature into KML files. The author is Jerome Burg, a Google Certified Teacher. (If I may make a request: Herodotus)
  • Nearby.org.uk’s Barry Hunter writes a PHP abstraction class for KML and shares.
  • Erik Gregg and Matt Nolan have a live KML tracker of dogsled racers in the Itidarod across Alaska. Frank Taylor at Google Earth Blog has more.
  • More remarkable than the discovery of an out-of-date label for a German mountain in Google Earth is the extent to which the Reuters article that was written about it got picked up by scores of newspapers. The same conclusion must be reached yet again: People perceive Google’s toponyms as some kind of standard, their wide use molding opinion and hence something worth fighting over.
  • Microsoft tries to sensor its satellite imagery by asking the US government which bits exactly it would like blacked out, but gets rebuffed. Silly Microsoft.
  • A Turkish court blocked access to Google’s YouTube from within Turkey on Wednesday, as the IHT reports, because one of the user-submitted videos “insulted” Ataturk, which is a crime in Turkey. This is precisely the kind of stuff that will happen more and more as authoritarian laws of old meet the brave new world of user-generated content.

    I wonder, though, does Google need Turkish YouTube viewers more than Turkish viewers need YouTube? Google says it has now removed the video that “offended” Ataturk, which is not a promising sign. Would Google then also remove sensitive content posted to Google Earth Community, if Turkey were to ask?

  • ABCNews flags the fact that the blocking of Google Earth in Bahrain and Morocco (was the latter ever confirmed?) made it into the US State Department’s 2006 Annual Report on Human Rights. (Why can’t I do a text search that covers the entire report?)
  • Is it just me, or have the most recent new map-based applications seen more Virtual Earth-based solutions? Two datapoints: Superpages.com and Weather.com.
  • New niche blog on the block: Aidan’s Census KML Data Visualization. (Via comments)
  • That one Digital Globe image from 2004 that was yanked from Basra wasn’t the only one. This blogger documents how an Australian base near the Ziggurat of Ur has also disappeared, as imagery is reverted to pre-war views. Not surprising — and there are certainly more such spots in Iraq.
  • Slashdot reports on a new search engine for matching 3D shapes that is purportedly 1,500 times faster than previous attempts. I wonder if this will have implications for finding plagiarists in Second Life and 3D Warehouse:-)

Notes on the political, social and scientific impact of networked digital maps and geospatial imagery, with a special focus on Google Earth.