Geography 2.0: Virtual Globes

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What do you call the technology behind Google Earth?

In the January 2006 Geoworld magazine, I found two items that may be of interest to virtual globe enthusiasts and scientists: an article comparing functionality of several virtual globes and a commentary on the challenges posed by internet mapping to traditional GIS.

The comparisons article focuses on providing short descriptions of Google Earth, Skyline Terra Suite, GeoFusion GeoPlayer, NASA World Wind, GeoTango Globeview (recently acquired by Microsoft), and ESRI ArcGIS Explorer.

Written by Matt Ball, the article refers to virtual globes as geographic exploration systems. The term apparently stems from definitions penned by ESRI's David Maguire for Geoworld Industry Outlook. Google defines their product as "a globe that sits inside your PC". Chris Laurel, creator of Celestia, defines his software as, "a real-time 3D space simulation". Personally, I am increasingly classifying the technology simply as virtual reality (VR); VR is an environment simulated by a computer. Still, I find myself using modifiers to VR like "geographic" or "geospatial". My non-geography friends tend to refer to the software by its product name, as a "computer globe" or, as "3D mapping software". If there are any awkward pauses during the March 9th AAG2006 Virtual Globes session or panel, I will pose the naming issue to our speakers and panelists.

In a provocative commentary on challenges to traditional GIS posed by internet mapping, Jeremy Crampton of Georgia State University, asserts:

Google could buy ESRI (if Jack Dangermond wanted to sell) and consider it a good week's work. However, it doesn't need to, because the map hacking industry is ahead of GIS now.

Regardless of my personal opinions of Dr. Crampton's statement, these are the types of discussions GIS and internet mapping professionals are having. Compared to five years ago, dinner conversations among geographers are much more lively.