New geoweb applications such as Microsoft’s Virtual Earth are at the confluence of two massive innovation trends – user-generated content and smart environments. To browse what the augmented reality of where virtual worlds collide with the real one, you need a good map.
To see El Greco’s masterpiece, ‘The Funerals of Count Orgaz’, you have to find the little church of Santo Tomé in the Spanish city of Toledo. But going there without digging for other treasuries hidden in the city that used to link Christian and Muslim cultures would be a waste. What else is there to see in what used to be the capital of sword making?
Thanks to a new online service developed by a French start-up, memo.fr, you can prepare a smart itinerary not only through the geography but also through the history of Toledo, Bologna and a growing number of cities. Memo founder Claude Richardet realised he could link the two disciplines of geography and history via a technology called mash up that combines data from different sources in one interface, a geobrowser.
Using the bird’s-eye function of Virtual Earth, Microsoft’s geobrowser, you can fly into the streets of Toledo and spot Santo Tomé as well as dozens of other museums, Roman gates, mosques and cathedrals. Each of the active tags marking the monuments offers hyperlinks to practical information such as schedules and tariffs, and also to detailed files made by amateur historians in the same way that internet users constantly enrich the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Real estate developers spotting the houses they have on sale, drivers looking for cheaper gas station networks - geoweb is all the rage in the participative internet called Web 2.0. Virtual communities of people around the world are creating their own location-specific content around, say, the most romantic hotels in France or the best Chinese organic restaurants in California.
Until recently, geotagging was limited to 2-dimensional digital maps. Memo.fr – as well as Tellmewhere.com and many other Microsoft and Google partners – is now transferring its user-generated contents to more immersive 3 dimensional maps.
The main reason for moving to 3D maps, says ABI Research analyst Dominique Bonte, is that they are more accurate. “Digital maps developed by Tele Atlas and Navtech are notoriously full of mistakes,” explains Bonte. “That is why GPS devices companies such as TomTom are now encouraging communities to correct road signs or street names in real time.”
In addition, 3D maps display more than just basic geographical information such as roads and city plans. High-resolution satellite imagery and thousands of aerial photographs are computed by software to yield exhaustive views of any building from any angle. With a 20 petabyte database built internally by 600 developers, Virtual Earth is now introducing 3D views of buildings with an accuracy of 7.5 centimetres in position and 25 centimetres in elevation.
The applications are already being used to browse relief maps of the real world and the information users ‘mash up’ on them via geotagging technologies. But they have also turned into a new operating system for developing new locationrelated applications that connect, for example, software-generated objects with a dynamic representation of reality.
While Google Earth’s users enrich it with photos, texts and even advertisements to serve various communities, “We have chosen a more professional approach,” explains Josef Kauer, Business Development Manager for Microsoft Virtual Earth in Central & Eastern Europe. “Our model is business to business to consumers.” With partners such as Dassault Sytems, Virtual Earth is becoming a platform where computerassisted design objects can be introduced: for example, architects are using it to introduce a planned building into the landscape to assess visual impact on the neighbourhood.
But for developers of geobrowsers such applications are probably only the tip of the iceberg. With navigation devices such as GPS increasingly embedded into cars or mobile phones, location-relevant content is getting easier to generate. “Coming soon,” says Josef Kauer, “store owners will be able to locate their boutique on the map and make it visible for users.”
When these kinds of technologies start to be deployed, virtual maps will allow us to browse the real world just like the Internet.
This merger of navigation devices with mobile telephony and user-generated content is already turning into a red-hot investment field. Adding mobility into the geoweb equation enables an infinite locating your friends via your mobile phone, to geotagging almost anything that can be captured by a mobile phone camera by adding recognition software and GPS to a phone to generate links between digital maps and any objects or people filmed. Snap a building and you’ve got the list of all the business inside it. Snap someone in the street and their Facebook or LinkedIn identity pops up on the screen – at least, as long they are willing to appear on the geonetwork.
The financial and business excitement mirrors the buzz about the potential of geobrowsers and geoapplications. Why stop with user-generated content about traffic, parking places or restaurant tips? Environmental data from the growing deployment of sensor networks look like a perfect candidate for next-generation mash ups. Already oil company BP is using virtual maps to monitor winds and ocean streams to optimise its drilling platforms and tanker fleet.
When those kinds of technologies start to be deployed, virtual maps will allow us to browse the real world just like the internet. Or even more: some, like Philippe de Passorio from Total Immersion, think that mixing the real world and the virtual life will trigger a kind of augmented reality.
True, there is not much of a difference between flying in virtual places like Second Life or games like Sims, and browsing geoapplications. In the real world, they still lack a user-friendly interface that will let people and objects pop up behind their avatars. But when stereoscopic augmented-reality goggles arrive, the geoweb and its location awareness and enriched content technologies will be the portal of choice, the place where the virtual and the real world collide. That’ll be when you not only find San Tomé in Toledo as easily as if you’ve visited the city ten times, but you then get to interact with an avatar of El Greco and discuss his painting under the shadow of an old (and real?) fig tree.