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

Sim City 5 – Virtual cities like you’ve never seen them before

When I saw the E3 trailer for the next installment of Sim City, due in February 2013, my first thought was – this would be great for an Urban Geography class….or a class on sustainable development…..or a class on government….or a, well you get the picture. Just the short preview that Sim City’s developer released shows a revamped engine for Sim City 5 with nice graphics, physics systems that bump up the realism, and simulation models that really let you see the consequences of your choices in building and managing your virtual cities. For anybody out there who still doesn’t think that the gaming industry has anything to contribute to education or exploring and solving real-world problems, watch this trailer:

Watch Dogs – Hacking the virtual city

Every year, the gaming industry teases us with the latest and greatest in new games and technology at shows around the world. One of the biggest shows, E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) recently gave us a couple of previews that really wowed. The first, Watch Dogs, is by major game studio Ubisoft, and explores the implications of controlling all aspects of city functions, sensor networks, and even monitoring the inhabitants’ personal technology footprint through a single operating system, a “City OS”, and what would happen if someone had the skills to hack that system. The short preview of the game from E3 showcases stunning graphics and real-time movement, and shows that not only can the gaming world be a great source of inspiration and technology for geospatial applications of 3D and real-time modeling, but the stories played out in games can also explore the questions that arise from implementing this technology. Take a look at the preview here:

Spatial role-playing and virtual immersion

It is interesting to find that there are many types of spatial immersion projects going on this summer. They provide a good contrast of how creative people can be with spatial immersion as an educational tool and the importance of experiencing an environment to understanding it in a new way.

The original Virtual Trillium Trail was a virtual ecological environment created by Maria C.R. Harrington as part of her dissertation research in Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. It is represents real world field trips offered by the Audubon Society of Western PA and uses the Pennsylvania Department of Education Ecology Standards. Virtual Trillium Trail has been posted on KickStarter to try to get funding to make it into an online game.

School of Architecture for All (SARCHA) Polypolis is a role playing social simulation that covers different areas of current events. They are currently presenting “Polypolis Athens: Become an Athenian and experience a city in crisis” for the upcoming London Festival of Architecture on June 23-July 8. The theme of the festival is The Playful City and Polypolis is billed as a Playful social simulation, but is playful in the way that serious games allow users to play in a immersive sandbox.

Role-playing and immersion are always great educational tools; virtually or in real life. I have always enjoyed having students create their own role-play activities to share with classmates. I think that both k-12 students and adults respond well to role-pay as an educational activity. A paper on role-playing as an educational technique from 1958 sums it up well, ” Dramatic play has been enjoyed by children- and adults too, if you will — throughout the ages. It is a natural and spontaneous way of learning, but only comparatively recently have educators come to realize its worth as a teaching device.”

Of course, Sue Bergeron and Jesse Rouse have done more than talk about the role of technology, such as the contributions of GIS, to making what educators dreamed about in 1958 possible. There is a good quote from  “Engaging the Virtual Landscape: Serious gaming environments as tools in historical landscape reconstruction and interpretation ”  that says, “Utilizing game functionality we can add sounds, smells, and other sensory input that would be part of such landscapes, and users can begin to experience phenomena that in combination creates a sense of place. ”  It is nice to see how role-playing has evolved as technology and spatial knowledge has evolved. It will be interesting to see what people come up with next.

 

Zombies and Geospatial Analysis

If you have met me, you know that I would love to teach a geography class using  the book  World War Z by Max Brooks, a journalist who uses a zombie apocalypse to discuss current events and world geography. David Hunter, a middle school teacher in Seattle, Washington beat me to the punch. He is asking for help on Kickstarter to create a  Grade 5-8 Standards Based curriculum “Learning Geography skills through a Zombie Apocalypse Narrative”.  His concept is not as far fetched as it seems. At the WV Association for Geospatial Professionals conference this week Sheila Wilson, Executive Director of the GIS Certificate Institute (GISP) started off her talk with the CDC  Zombie Preparedness Guide. She talked about how in the guide a GIS team who were prepared to spatially analyze zombie hot spots, were prepared for anything.  According to Cartographia, Austin TX has been prepared for a zombie outbreak since 2007.

Joking aside, I think that the zombie apocalypse creates a “sandbox” for researchers, educators, and society to analyze and understand complex, interconnected geospatial issues in a non-threatening way.  I’m not the only one who feels this way. Edward Gonzalez-Tennant a geography professor at Monmouth University is hopefully going to be presenting a paper on “Popular Culture and GIS: Using Geospatial Technologies to Model and Prepare for the Zombie Apocalyze.” at the 2012 ESRI Education User’s Conference (EDUC). There is also a 2012 ESRI International User’s session dedicated to Health, Behavior, and Zombies.  Preparing for zombie outbreaks on Earth is inspiring geospatial professionals to innovate and think big much like Star Trek has inspired decades of engineers.

If you want to experience your own zombie attack, Class 3 Outbreak is a zombie outbreak simulator played via Google maps at hundreds of locations world wide.

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

It’s always fun to compare the modern marvels of yesterday to their technological equivalent today. I spent about an hour on Charles Shopsin’s blog  “Modern Mechanix: Yesterday’s Tomorrow Today” reading all of the old geospatial related articles I could find. A short article from a issue of Popular Mechanics extols the convenience of a Dashboard Map that Holds a Roadmap from November 1950.  Just like the GPS units today it plugs into a cigarette lighter socket. Unlike the Garmin Nuvi lighter socket mount, it probably cost a lot more than around $10.00.

In another article from the early 1950’s, the author creates a business building 3d models for industry and business such as scale models of factory lots and contour maps of real estate property.  The support and criticism of 3d models is very similar to those still being argued about geospatial modeling today. From  “Isn’t there some easier way of selling those mountain lots than driving prospects 90 miles to see them?” to “Build little models,” he scoffed, “and you’ll have an income about the same size.”  There are articles  from old National Geographic’s on The Earth as a Satellite Sees It (1960),  Modern Mechanix’s on Amazing Robots speed Check of Nation (1930 Census), and advertisements in Scientific American for Texas Instruments micro processors for data loggers (1977).

 

 

 

 

 

“Local Information is The Final Frontier”

That’s a great quote from Google Maps product manager Manik Gupta! What led him to say such a thing is that Google is now opening their map to user input. Users will be able to edit the map to make it better. They’ve already launched the tool in 183 countries who do not have an adequate abundance of “official” data. It’s like the world’s largest Participatory GIS project! If you want to get started editing, head over to Google’s Mapmaker tool and start adding information to Google Maps.

And if you’re curious who’s doing what, you can watch edits in real-ish time via their new Mapmaker Pulse tool. I gotta say, it’s fascinating to watch people digitize in real time around the globe!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and the almost one year anniversary of Google Street View Ireland, here is an enjoyable interview with Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist for Google Street View, discussing the launch of Google Street View Ireland for almost every urban center and rural road in Ireland. I have also included great video Google Street View Ireland in the Irish Language version. I make no claims for what they are saying but it has some very good graphics. And for your enjoyment a fun project that was done for Milford Hospice in Ireland by Interactive Media UL to use Google Street View Ireland and sensors to create a “real” interactive bike riding experience. The project, “Escapism, pedal through Google StreetView on a Stationary Bike” was created as part of a Masters of Science in Interactive Media at The University of Limerick, Ireland by Colette Moloney.

Cheap Thrills and Virtual Reality

By now, almost everyone has seen the cool You Tube video of the Japanese students fake skydiving using a projector and Google Earth. However, all the posts and comments focus on the skydiving part and how realistic, non-realistic, or just plain awesome it is. When I watched it my first thought was, “that is a really cool way to build a cheap, portable virtual environment.” The closest approximation I could find to what they did are electronic art canvases which cost about $3,000. They are used at the really cool Collaborative Advanced Navigation Virtual Art Studio at the Krannert Art Museum/University of Illinois, Champaign. To do truly immersive research and projects, virtual environments such as the EON Icube cost upwards of $50,000 to over $1 million dollars. Which brings me to the other thought I had while watching the Google Skydiving video, “There is no way anyone would let you do that in a commercial virtual environment, especially if there is a chance someone would get motion sick or worse bring down a sensor or mirror.” But I can add this to my list of things I would do if I had my own CAVE, along with play massive multi-player online video games and make my own music video.

Multi-Touch Spherical Display DIY

I want one!  It’s a multi-touch spherical display that you can make for around $1,000.  Oddly enough for such a high tech device, it’s got a bit of a steampunk vibe to it.  The first example they use is the obvious Google Earth example, but they do show using it in other contexts.  I’m not convinced the photo viewer or music making device really needs a globe surface.  If you’re interested in making your own, the directions for building one can be found here.  WARNING: The directions aren’t exactly the simplest to follow and I’d imagine there’s a lot of winging it involved.