How the Matrix Begins

Morpheus couldn’t tell Neo how the Matrix was first built, I think we’re seeing some interesting groundwork being laid for an ever-more realistic simulations of the earth coming out that will may one day give us the option of choosing to live in a virtual world instead of the real one. Which would make broadband access a vital public utility along with water, gas, and electricity.

First, Google Earth. If you haven’t downloaded it, stop reading right now and go get it. The fact that an interactive model of the entire earth, including detailed satellite imagery, 3D representations of buildings, hyperlinks to user-generated photo albums and a freakin’ flight simulator to fly around all of it is free, as in beer, is still mind-boggling. The thing to remember is that Google isn’t sitting still on Google Earth or it’s web-based companion, Google Maps. There’s a decent chance that since I’ve been writing this post, Google has added another cool feature to its mapping tools that will be the topic of another blog post.

Google Maps Street View

Google Maps’ Street View is pretty cool, but after a while, the speed of reloading the streetview combined with the size of the image makes one feel a bit like a tortoise with tunnel vision. There’s a small outfit called Mapjack that is raising the bar in what they call “immersive street side imagery.” They claim to have done what “others” have done with NASA-sized budgets on a shoestring. Their website shows off three cities that have been “mapjacked”–San Francisco, Sausalito, CA, and Chiang Mail, Thailand. Unlike the GoogleMaps streetview, which shows your street view image as small caption window over your map, Mapjack provides a split screen showing your map below and your street image above in panorama. Your location and graphical indication of your field of view is shown on the map below. You can use the mouse keys to navigate along trails of blue dots running down the streets. Left and right arrow keys allow a smooth, sharp 360 degree view from your location. Google’s street views, while they can be enlarged, and you do get the panorama effect with the arrow keys, to me the Mapjack effect comes across as sharper, clearer, and more immersive than Google, at least for now. Progressing down streets and looking around still entails a bit of click-and-load, but overall, the experience is a clear improvement over Google’s Street View.

Mapjack's Street View

Another interesting way of interacting with Google’s virtual world is being developed at the University of Southern California, and it is called Viewfinder. The idea is simple: You’ve got a photograph of a landscape or a building. You want to know where was the photographer standing when he took the picture. The Viewfinder project, when complete, would be able to take that photo and “situate it” within Google Earth. The effect is imagined to be a combination of Flickr and Google Earth, a more efficient way of cataloging on a geographical bulletin board the millions of photos uploaded to Flickr.

These enhancements, if included in the Google Earth simulation, will enrich the experience and make it more compelling. Sooner or later–probably sooner–Google Earth will incorporate these and other features. I can’t wait–I love maps–but the reality is that most Internet users, whether they use Google Maps, or Yahoo Maps, or Mapquest, are getting the same maps and directions that you could have gotten out of Mapquest a decade ago. The added features are great, but Google Earth, as great as it is, has not yet reached an “iPod” moment when the combination of features and the richness of the experience change it from being a just a cool toy to a compelling tool that everyone has to have. If I can just throw a wishlist out there, I’d like to be able to translate the experience of flying over the surface of Google Earth down to the street level, so you can get real-time rendered views for a virtual tour of Amsterdam or Chicago (or more likely, San Francisco will the first city to get the full treatment). Combine the Googleverse with a wireless screen projectd on the inside of my sunglasses–I can match the real world with the Google world.

And then of course is the part where I get so immersed in the Google world that I don’t even know I am living in a vat of gel with a metal spike in my brain, as a kind of human battery to support Google. I’ll pack my Dayquil just in case I get to that point.