Geography 2.0: Virtual Globes

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Virtual globes at the movies

We have lots of entertainment industry people in town this week for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, so films are on my mind. One item brought to my attention was the January acquisition of Alias by Autodesk. Alias' Maya software, which is particularly useful for modeling particles, collision deformations, fluids, hair, cloth, and other realistic textures, is used widely in the film industry. Let's get that technology into virtual globes. By the way, one of the founders of Alias-Wavefront, Mark Sylvester, runs the Film Festival's blog and podcast.

Though I haven't heard of any movies using recent virtual globes technology yet, I'm sure it's just a matter of time. Just for fun, I started thinking of virtual globes in film. Two classic examples are in Star Trek and Star Wars. In 1982's Wrath of Kahn, the Star Trek crew views a computer animation of terraforming (see: video/mp4). The sequence is one of the earliest uses of CGI in film, and the first to use fractal-generated landscapes. In Star Wars, we see a holographic Death Star in 1983's Return of the Jedi. According to this site, ILM designer Joe Johnston's virtual Death Star was the only computer-generated graphic in that film. I'll note that the Death Star hologram has the characters interactively working with it--albeit somewhat passively by just zooming on areas of interest. From wikipedia's timeline of early CGI, four of the first six instances of film CGI were used for maps. Groundbreaking computer-generated-imagery film effects seem to have started with maps and virtual globes.

Death Star hologram. source/copyright:, 2006

Just as a final comment from festival conversations, I saw that Sketchup was used in the film production of "Good Night and Good Luck". In fact, Sketchup has a Film and Stage industry website.

Jeff Bridges and Alan Glennon at the film festival (photo by Rhonda Glennon, 4 Feb 06)

Post a comment if you have a favorite film virtual globe.