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.

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