Google Earth VR and our Playful World

From The Playful World (Ballantine Books, 2000):

By June of 1995, quite a few people were working in VRML. Rikk Carey headed a crew at Silicon Graphics developing the first VRML Web browser, and Tony Parisi had gone off to found Intervista, and began to work on VRML tools. I was nearly finished with a textbook on VRML, in the hope that I could teach people to create their own VRML worlds. Our efforts would be seen by the public for the first time when the Interactive Media Festival took over Los Angeles’ Variety Arts Center.
When I walked into the Variety Arts Center, I’d like to say that I felt déjà vu — I’d certainly seen these walls before, modeled in VRML. A four-month project to model the building and its exhibits had just been published on the Web — the first VRML world of any significance. As I toured the Festival, I realized that the Variety Arts Center looked quite different in reality than in simulation. Oh well. A lot of folks were already inside, chattering about this exhibit or that. I ran into a friend — a Hollywood movie director — who asked me, “Have you seen T_Vision?” Nope. What is it? “Come with me.” He led me up the stairs — and into another world.
ART+COM’s T_Vision, back in 1995.
On a five-foot television screen directly in front of me, I saw an image of the Earth in space, floating gently against a sea of black. Beside the screen, a large ball — looking like an overgrown beach ball — sat in a metal frame. Someone went up to the ball and spun it. The Earth moved. It was 1:1. As you spun the ball, the image moved on the screen.
Ok, that’s nice.
Someone else walked up to the ball and pressed some buttons mounted on its frame.
Now the image of the Earth began to fill the screen. As it grew closer, and I began to see the individual features of the Earth — continents, then lakes, and then rivers. We got closer and closer and closer, and, the closer we got, the more I saw. Now I could make out cities and towns and industrial belts. We were zooming in on Germany, then on central Germany, then on Berlin, then I could begin to make out the streets, and, closer in, I could see the buildings, and finally, just one building, and then, with a screeching halt, I was poised outside the window of an office building, looking in.
This is very nice.
We rode the trip in reverse; from building to streets to city to landscape to continent and, just as suddenly, a serene Earth floated pleasantly on the screen. I’d ended my journey where I’d begun, in high Earth orbit.
My friend leaned in. “That’s not all. It’s live.”
“What?” I croaked. This was too much.
Someone must have heard us, because another button was pressed, and — voila! — the cloud patterns, live via satellite, appeared over the image of the Earth. I felt like I was in the Space Shuttle, looking down. No, it was more than that. My heart was full. I felt like I was seeing God. It was perfect. I had dreamed that such a thing might be possible, someday, but never in my wildest moments did I imagine that it would be here, now, right in front of me, live and in color. I had to know everything about it.

That project, T_Vision, inspired me to create WebEarth, as I recount a bit further along:

In early 1996, I spent a week huddled over my computer. I unplugged the phone and didn’t even bother to check my ever-increasing flow of electronic mail. I searched across the Web for real-time images of the Earth from space, and I found them at a curious site run by John Walker, a software multimillionaire who had earned his fortune as co- founder of Autodesk, an early developer of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. Walker had recently retired to Switzerland at the ripe old age of 45, and, from his comfortable chateaux, created an extensive website to showcase his interests. Among these, he included both astronomy and Earth visualization.
Nestled deep within Walker’s site, I found that he took the photographs generated by weather satellites, prettied them up, and then provided them on his website. They were accurate to within an hour. I set to work, and, a few days later, I’d finished my own homage to T_Vision, which I named WebEarth.
WebEarth is a three-dimensional, live model of Earth, just like T_Vision. Unlike T_Vision, it doesn’t have the extensive detail that requires a high-performance computer. Anyone with a computer and a modem can access WebEarth from anywhere. I wanted it to become universally available, so I made sure that it wouldn’t overwhelm any computer which gazed upon it.
When I’d completed my work, clicked on a link in my Web browser, and actually saw the Earth — live — floating in the inky black of cyberspace, I broke down. (WebEarth has had this effect on several people I know. Something about the image is starling.) It was beautiful — perhaps not quite as beautiful as T_Vision, but beautiful enough. And anyone could get to it, anywhere. You can too: just go to http://www.webearth.org/ and see for yourself. It’s the Earth, live and in color, and reason enough, I believe, to see the Web in 3D.

For the nearly 30 years I’ve worked in VR, I’ve only ever had one goal — getting the planet into VR in real-time, and making that available to everyone, everywhere. VRML was the scaffolding — but it existed before widespread 3D acceleration, or the gathering of huge datasets that could describe the world.

Google Earth VR is the category app for this generation of VR.

Google Earth showed what could be done on a desktop computer, and when Google Earth VR came out in the middle of last year, all of the pieces had finally fallen into place to produce a leap into new cognitive capacities. The database powering Google Earth VR has continuously improved, and now shows a significant portion of the Earth’s surface in eye-popping 3D: That became clear when I gazed down over Carlsbad, California, into my sister’s backyard swimming pool.

We have a rich model of the Earth, now we need to make it live, integrating every possible dataset on the energy and material flows of our global civilization. When we can see all of it, all at once, all together, in real time, we can start to make considered decisions on how the actions of one or some affect many or all. We can see the consequential nature of our activities. That awareness may (you can never be sure) lead to behavioural changes.

It’s certainly got to better than what we have today: at best, a vague awareness that there’s a world system within which we are embedded but of which we know next to nothing.

In a time when we find ourselves confronted with an ever more pressing need to understand the consequential nature of our own activities — locally and globally — we need tools like Google Earth VR. Tools don’t fix anything by themselves, but tools are powerful amplifiers of innate capacities — in this case, our perception and our intelligence — and can make it easier for us to become aware of and modify the course of our actions.

It’s time to have a play: what would Google Earth VR need to become to contain everything we know about everything in the world? How would we manage that? How could we keep it from overwhelming us with information vital to someone else but useless to ourselves? How can we make this tool truly useful and truly universal — and available to anyone who needs it?

These are not questions to be answered in an hour or even a year. But these are questions worth answering, because those answers will empower us to understandings of ourselves and our planet that can make us more resilient, more capable, and more considered.

(If you’d like to read The Playful World, grab a PDF here.)