All tied up: Remote Sensing

A year after the introductory post to my “All tied up” series I am actually releasing my next post. In the intervening year terms have, if anything, become even more interwoven with many of us often going to the now de facto ‘geospatial technologies’ to explain the wealth of technologies and data that we pull out of the toolbox and database for any given project. The term that has most been hidden by this (in my opinion, with no easy way to back it up) is Remote Sensing. By Remote Sensing I refer to what Lillesand and Keifer define as “The science and art of obtaining information…acquired by a device that is not in contact with the object…”.

This is a very broad definition and it captures all of the ways in which remotely sensed information is captured, but here I will narrow it down to those raster-based data (and occasionally point cloud data) that are captured from a distance. We can easily include photogrammetry (planes, balloons, etc) and satellite remote sensing capturing everything from panchromatic to hyperspectral images.

While we are on ‘what it is’ I will include what may get lumped in occasionally. Remote sensing is not all sensor data from remote locations. While the term is not incorrectly used, it is not always the same since some of these sensors are in direct contact with what they are measuring (stream gauges, temperature sensors, etc). So in a Venn diagram there is a large overlap between sensors located remotely and remote sensing instruments, but they are not completely overlapping sets. Kind of an aside, but I wanted to make a Venn diagram.

Getting back to remote sensing, there are two ways to look at the term. One is that it isn’t so much tied up, but largely absent in the industry today. In many areas, imagery has become the term of choice and, of course, the backdrop in our web maps, cartographic products, etc. In these projects and products we talk about imagery, but its source has become an almost unimportant aspect of some work. The other way we look at remote sensing is definitely one that is tied up in GIS. Many, many moons ago you had raster software and vector software and much of that raster geospatial software was driven by remote sensing activities, but that has changed (I think we can agree, for the better) in the GIS space as vector and raster has come together. As discussions with some of the leading remote sensing software vendors on the podcast have shown they are inline with, or even making tools available directly within, GIS software packages. We have lost the divide between GIS and Remote Sensing which having to switch between applications gave us. The separation continues to fade in terms of the software arena.

What does standout in terms of Remote Sensing, not tangled up if you will, is the hardware used to capture imagery (from satellite to helicopter to kite to drone…) and the data itself. This content continues to push our industry forward as we can collect both broad swath information that pushes science forward (e.g. moderate resolution data) and we continue to create sensors with ever-finer resolution and higher accuracy and precision (e.g. lidar). These data, as mentioned, are seen now more than ever with web maps and virtual globes, but it is the analytical potential that they offer, whether resulting in time series, human/environment processes, or finding archaeological sites, that are the strength of our investment in remote sensing platforms and data.

We will cut the strings there, as raster analysis is another set of terms that have been tied together as well. But keep in mind as you are doing your research or projects that your imagery is the result of over a century of research in capturing and manipulating images from a distance. While we have begun to take the technologies for granted in some cases, remote sensing remains an integral part of many areas of the industry.

More things, less stuff

Like all of us, I’m a creature of habit. I start my day off with the obligatory gallon and a half of coffee and my normal web rounds to see what’s new since I signed off the night before. One of my favorite places on the web to hit is Ikea Hackers. I love the idea that people look at these pre-built objects not as end items, but as things that can be manipulated, moved, altered, added to, and… well… ‘hacked’ into new versions. I love to study the hacks, see if I can emulate them, see if I can extend them. I even start to look at individual hacks and see if I can hack a couple hacks together. It’s like a grown up version of Lego. The pictures on the website are like the pictures on the boxes of Lego – a suggestion of where to move forward. It just thrills me to no end.

Ikea hackers works because Ikea exists. I know that’s simplistic, but it has some serious implications. Someone has gone through the hassles and problem of making things that fit together in different ways. They figured out how those things can fit together. They made (technical terms alert!) the doohickeys that make the thingies fit into the what-da-ya-call-ems. Those things just work. An allen wrench, a screwdriver, and a few off color words and you can have a bookcase or even a bed. We have this base of objects that are designed specifically to work together in very specific and defined ways. Hacking those things becomes so much easier because it’s left to the hacker to envision ways in which these things that are designed to fit together separately, can be fit together. The hacker is effectively designing new interfaces to things that already have some well defined interfaces. On top of that, they throw in an aesthetic change that can ultimately change the whole product from top to bottom… transforming the ‘hack’ into a whole ‘nother critter.

So what does hacking Ikea furniture have to do with geography and geospatial technology? A lot, I think, specifically as it applies to newer forms of representation such as virtual reality, or serious games, or whatever term you like here*. We can think of the elements in Ikea as a raw product that can be adapted, combined, reconfigured, changed, or removed as necessary for a specific outcome. It isn’t left to hackers of Ikea furniture to create the raw products – Ikea has already done that for them. Nobody goes out to a saw mill, grabs some saw dust, glues it together under pressure, slaps some white scratch resistant sheets over that new pressboard, then drills holes to hold these metal connectors they hand forged with allen heads in them so the boards can fit together. Those already exist at Ikea, so why would you?

Unfortunately I think in the virtual universe, we’re still stuck at the raw materials stage instead of the raw products stage. We have to go out and make our virtual worlds from scratch – every line, every polygon, every bit of physics, nearly every bit of texture needs to be hand created. That puts a LOT of constraint on the uptick in the virtual, I think. Some of us simply don’t have the artistic chops to put this stuff together, and even those who do often don’t have the programming chops to build the world once the models are made. Sure, we can collaborate to get the skills we’re missing, but that takes a shared space to interact and a shared objective. I can program and want to study World War I trenches. You can build models and graphics, but you’re interested in religion in early America. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Admittedly there has been some movement toward making the raw products. Google just sold their 3D modeling software to Trimble, and Adobe and Autodesk maintain applications, for instance. The problem with these products is they focus more upon the model and less upon the process. That’s great for artistically declined people like myself, but not so great for the programmatically challenged. The methods and the process are missing. Then again, even if the model exists, it might not be malleable, either because of ability, license, or source material. To turn back to my Ikea analogy, I can set a bookcase on top of a table, but that’s not the same thing as ‘hacking’ the two together, now is it? For the hacking culture to spark, grow, and expand, there needs to be something to ‘hack’, not this nebulous mass of stuff we have to work into something usable.

How do we get there? I have no idea. Does there need to be an accessible corporate vehicle that encourages this sort of hacking, ie ‘VR Ikea’? Does it have to come organically from the community? Is it the intersection of the two? Where does the spark that kicks this off come from? The current attempts at answering these questions kinda feel like old carburetor cars that would get flooded when you try to start them. We’re kinda flooded right now in the move from creating everything from scratch to ‘hacking’. I can kinda see bits and pieces of the path from flooded to fully running and it excites me. I desperately want to go into a VR Ikea and grab this model and that model and this physics approach and hack something new and innovative and interesting. I can taste it. Then again, it could just be those Swedish meatballs I’m jonesing for… who knows?

*Jesse note: I will tackle these terms at the beginning of August

First Annual Sketch Up Halloween Challenge

Sketch Up has announced their first annual Halloween Challenge. You can pick three categories: 1:Jack 0’Lantern, 2: Haunted House, 3: Both together. You need to fill out a challenge submission form and upload your model to 3D Warehouse in publicly downloadable format. The SketchUp team will judge the entries on October 28th. Here is a link to Googlemeister’s Amazing Haunted House Walk Through Collection from last year in 3D Modeler.

If you need some inspiration, here is a link to the Haunted House (real and fictional locations), traditional Halloween, Halloweentown type locations, and popular Halloween episodes in TV Tropes.

All tied up: Geo, GI, and where we are coming from

outline of the continents made of threadIn today’s world of spatial driven technologies we talk from a lot of directions and about a range of technologies. Over the next couple of months I am going to try to break out some of the concepts that have become interwoven over the years through the mixing of technologies, the increase of computing capabilities, and marketing hype. I am not going to try to do a history of the industry by any means, but I will often dig back into that history to figure out where today’s notions of concepts merged or separated.

The goal will be, by September or October, to be able to wrap things up with a lucid (as much as I generally get in a post) take on the aspects of the industry that are the drivers. Yeah, you probably know what I will talk about when we get there, but as they say, ‘it isn’t the destination, but the journey’. On that…let’s start the journey.
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Lost in the Virtual Fog – A Question of Scale

bigMan1I have been remiss in not doing any diary entries for awhile, but I have been feverishly working trying to get my demo XNA application ready for the ESRI UC presentation. Finally today, I think I got the last bit of functionality on my list working, so I am pretty excited and crossing my fingers that everything will run right at the conference, Of course, you can never predict a live demo, so tonight I am recording a few videos of Virtual Morgantown in action, using a cool little software tool called GameCam.

Last month, we were happy to be able to go to Pittsburgh to cover the Game Education Summit, held at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. We got some nice interviews, including the conversation with ETC Pittsburgh Director Drew Davidson, which we featured on Episode 206 of the podcast. While I’m going to have another entry soon that will be specifically about some of my thoughts on the Game Education Summit, since I’ve gotten back, I’ve had to literally burn the midnight oil to get Virtual Morgantown looking and running the way I want it for this stage in the project. As I’ve been sitting here opening each model in SketchUp, cleaning up what I can, and exporting them to the XNA application as .X files (many, many thanks for Zbyl’s .X Exporter plugin!), I am continually reminded of the challenges in working at this scale after coming from a GIS background.

As you can zoom in and essentially immerse yourself at a nearly 1:1 scale in the virtual world, issues that never would have mattered suddenly become vital. Even Google Earth, World Wind, ArcGIS Explorer, any of the virtual globes aren’t really meant to be used at that scale, as their background imagery and 3D models look best from a viewpoint well above ground level. So, when you get down to the ground, and are actually representing real features, you have to give each one at least some individual attention. It’s often the opposite of the way most of us are trained. Rather than looking for commonalities and creating data layers that characterize those similarities, you have to bring out the aspects that might make a particular feature unique.

It’s a strange notion for a lot of geographers and GIS people, I think, to change their perspective from starting with a zoomed-out view of the world and then drilling down toward individual features to starting with the viewpoint of a single person in the world and then have to move and explore in order to identify and understand the nature of the virtual environment you’re immersed in. And, the more you’re drawn into the virtual world, the more obvious the individual differences become, and the more important it is for the creator of the simulation or interactive environment to pay attention to those small design details that help form a sense of actually experiencing the virtual world.

As I have progressed from childlike wonder and delight over my ability to create a simple XNA application with real-world terrain data, to relief when each one of my new functions actually builds and runs or when I get my model assets adjusted to just the right location and height, I am becoming even more of a believer in taking gaming technology and design seriously, and looking at how we can create virtual world applications that integrate aspects from many different areas, from gaming to GIS and geospatial to geography, and even history and other disciplines.

Lost in the Virtual Fog – making the interactive connection, part 1

keyhole1My dissertation proposal defense is finally over and, since I passed, it’s time to get back to work and really get the functionality on the Spatial Experience Engine ramped up. During my presentation and in the Q-and-A with my committee afterward, I kept coming back to the issue of interaction in the virtual world. I’ve been ruminating on this quite a bit over the last few months, once I got the basic terrain and model drawing stuff out of the way. I think the key to making all of this work and be compelling for users is of course the UI (User Interface).
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Lost in the Virtual Fog – Seeing Really is Believing

digcity1So, this past week has been a flurry for me, as I’ve had to schedule and then reschedule my PhD dissertation proposal defense. But, finally it seems that we are set for next Tuesday morning, so now I have some time to catch up on my diary entry. I was contemplating what to write this week, when I was reminded this morning of something we’ve noticed since we started demonstrating our work in virtual worlds and especially the gaming technology: seeing really is believing.

We’ve been giving demos of our virtual world work in our VR CAVE this week, both the older ArcScene projects and the new XNA application, and I’ve been really happy with the response we’ve been getting from people in lots of different fields. One common theme with the visitors that I’ve talked to is that many of them have kind of heard about gaming technology, serious games, or virtual worlds, but they didn’t really get what people were talking about until they were able to see it actually working. Once they got over the initial WOW factor, it was fun to watch GIS professionals, city planners, and educators start brainstorming with ideas about these applications could be used for all kinds of projects. After all the frustrating hours spent hunched over a keyboard staring at a stupid 3D model and wondering why the roof isn’t square, or screaming at the computer because clearly it is incapable of understanding my perfectly written code, it is really nice to see that we are creating something that people appreciate and can see the value of.
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