Football supporters and other visitors to this summer's Euro2008 football championships in Austria and Switzerland can enjoy a new experience as they log onto websites in search of information to plan their trip.
Thanks to ground-breaking technology developed by Vexcel Imaging GmbH, a company with a strong pedigree in photogrammetry and remote sensing, and headquartered in Graz, Austria, the fans will be able to see their future surroundings in high quality three-dimensional format. The company, which provides aerial, bird's eye and street level imagery to a range of clients from government to corporate, was purchased by Microsoft two years ago.
Salzburg was the first Austrian city to be presented this way, enabling fans to get a real live feel, well before they reach the country, not only for the historic city, but also for the football stadium where they will be cheering their teams on to victory. The same techniques are now being used to display other major Austrian cities such as Vienna and Graz in a new light on a two-dimensional computer screen. This summer's events make Austria the showcase for the sophisticated technology, but soon this unique treatment will be given to other leading international cities.
Vexcel, which since the May 2006 acquisition has operated under the group name Microsoft Photogrammetry, plays a crucial role in Microsoft's Virtual Earth platform. Vexcel is involved throughout the complex process – from the initial hardware to the final product. It has developed the technology in the shape of the UCX camera system which enables aircraft to take the initial images and the software required to process these into a 3-D format.
Alexander Wiechert, the company's business director based in Graz - where some 45 employees closely involved in the process are located - explains how this new presentation of our surroundings is being achieved. “Our goal is to achieve fully automated 3-D models from the raw material provided by the cameras. We are already highly successful at it. We have developed an aerial camera that is very precise, geometrically accurate and stable and can provide high quality colour and pan images (i.e. grey-scaled images consisting of grades of black and white). Service companies around the world use the camera and collect data. Thousands of images go to our production process every day where our software extracts 3-D models.”
This technological breakthrough can benefit the short-term visitor, longterm resident and the professional town planner or transport organiser alike.
“If an image is flat, you can recognise it from the top, but you can't navigate. To have a good impression of a city, you need a 3-D environment at street level. That way, a tourist can get the atmosphere and decide whether to be in that area. There are similar advantages for professionals. Planners can work on two-dimensional maps, but to see changes in the physical environment you need 3-D,” says Mr Wiechert.
Replicating concrete 3-D structures in a lifelike way on computer screens does not come cheaply and Microsoft is investing heavily behind the project. First, there is the initial outlay of about US $1 million for the special camera and then the cost of hiring a plane to take the images – for even a relatively small city like Graz this is at least a two-day exercise. This is without counting the development and processing costs.
The UCX camera system is a key part of the process. While the actual production of the sophisticated piece of equipment is outsourced, Vexcel Imaging GmbH, in addition to the development, tests and, if necessary, refines each one before delivering it to the latest customer. In that sense, it is the manufacturer and responsible for the product.
With some 100 of the special cameras being used worldwide, the company is receiving increasing demands for customer support. It initially plans to provide this from Graz, but now a lab has also been opened in Boulder, Colorado and, down the road, aims to have similar facilities in South East Asia.
Mr Wiechert, who joined the company in January 2008, had previously worked in the aerial remote sensing business for several years. He provides personal proof of the usefulness of the new technology as he prepares to relocate his family to Graz.
“We are looking for somewhere to live and with this 3-D technology you get a better feel for an area and its atmosphere. You can feel the brick,” he explains.
Rory Watson is a Brussels-based freelance journalist. He writes for The Times and other publications.