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How to COVER the World With Animation

Christopher Harz takes a look at the growing 3D field of Geographic Information Systems and the COVER system.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an area in the 3D industry thats ready to take off. © Reigl USA.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an area in the 3D industry thats ready to take off. © Reigl USA.

GIS is a rapidly growing field that is strongly dependent on animation, yet most graphics professionals are not aware of it. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) will eventually create hundreds of companies and thousands of jobs, and change many of the ways in which we look at our world including education, design, architecture and homeland defense. Let's take a look at this huge new field, see who some of the chief the players are, and examine a specific application of GIS that illustrates a raft of its challenges and opportunities.

Geographic information has long been a relatively low-tech profession involved with associating representations of places on earth (on maps, models, globes or digital databases) with information about those places, such as plans for construction sites, concentrations of certain types of cars in particular cities or measurements of pollution. What has brought GIS into the forefront is the recent convergence of several new phenomena, including the availability of satellite photos, the New Internet, cheap global positioning system (GPS) chips, 3D animation techniques and displays and wideband wireless.

High-resolution satellite photos have been around for a long time, but they were so secret that the very office in the U.S. that controlled them (the NRO, or National Reconnaissance Office) did not officially exist until recently. All this changed when Russia, seeking hard currency, made photos from its spy satellites widely available. Suddenly the race was on to collect, organize and sell high resolution photos of just about any place on earth along with the photos came animation tools to turn 2D photos into 3D models of things on the ground (this animation was also originally developed by the military). Next came the New Internet (officially called Internet Protocol version 6 see www.usipv6.com for shows and details), which will slowly replace the Internet we are familiar with. One of the properties of the New Internet is the ability to place billions of sensors (including Webcams) all over the place, each with its own Internet address, and give them the ability to report directly and give live updates from their locations via wireless connections. The recent price drop of GPS chips to below seven dollars each means that those thousands of people and/or sensors can all know where they are located when they make their reports.

This 3D model from Reigl USA is an example of the detail that can be achieved with GIS technology. © Reigl USA.

This 3D model from Reigl USA is an example of the detail that can be achieved with GIS technology. © Reigl USA.

All this means a flood of data and the need to make it intelligible, which is where 3D animation comes in. The best way to comprehend a tsunami of information is often with 3D overlays (showing objects, structures or people) on top of basic earth topography. The uses of such overlays are manifold. A manager at a car factory could get an update on car sensors displayed on a map of the country, and plan what parts he will have to ship to which dealers in case of a recall (Toyota and others are working on prototypes for this). A town council could generate a 3D model of its city for interactive exploration by visitors (Berlin is doing this with ViewTec www.viewtec.ch), even allowing a "fly-through" in the downtown area (see Columbia, S.C. at www.richlandmaps.com). A medical team could look at a 3D model of a country and see where an outbreak was originating from (this is being done with cholera in Bangladesh).

Much of the push in 3D GIS is for security applications. A DHS (Department of Homeland Security) manager can use 3D models of a city to track where his teams are going into action, and where the threats are located. He needs 3D models rather than 2D maps or photos because his team might be on different levels of a tall building urban areas are inherently three-dimensional. Israel is one of the first countries to use 3D animation for its homeland security forces. Several Israeli companies are modeling major parts of the country in 3D, so that emergency response units can plan operations in photorealistic city blocks.

Players in the Field

Major players in GIS include four key vendors: ESRI (www.esri.com), Intergraph (www.intergraph.com), MapInfo (www.mapinfo.com) and Autodesk (www.autodesk.com). There are also dozens of startups and many small companies in the business (for a sample, see www.urbansimulation.com). ESRI is a major mover, with close to $500 million in GIS related sales a year, including animation and data collection tools within ESRI's basic toolset, ArcGIS. The company conducts a yearly user's group meeting, usually in the San Diego area, that is a who's-who of the GIS crowd; this year's confabulation drew more than 12,000 attendees. Autodesk seems especially well placed in the GIS area, since it has toolsets to cover either wide-area projects such as models of cities (including its Map and Civil Engineering tools) or detailed projects such as individual buildings (with its AutoCAD toolset) and users can then generate characters and motion in those environments via Autodesk's popular 3ds max animation package (from its Discreet division). Whereas some companies are developing specialized software, others are adapting their basic software packages for GIS applications. SketchUp, for instance, is developing a plug-in for its easy-to-use software (www.sketchup.com) that allows interaction with ESRI's geographic information system product line.

A 3D scan of the overpass. © Reigl USA.

A 3D scan of the overpass. © Reigl USA.

Art Reflects Reality: Creating Virtual Environments

Whereas it will sometimes suffice to use rough city models generated from photos (this is done by taking different aspect angles and stretching the 2D shapes of buildings into 3D), for many applications this isn't good enough. Using CAD drawings is one way to generate models of buildings. But what if no CAD drawings are available? GIS artists then use a familiar technique: they scan the objects. Entertainment animators have used scanning for years for instance, by using a digitizer (a stylus attached to a base) or a laser scanner to mark points in 3D space on a small object such as an hourglass, which then translates into a 3D digital model with the proper software. But how do you digitize something like a football field? Or a freeway overpass?

What you need for that is an industrial-strength scanner, such as the Riegl 3D LMS Scanner series. A scanner of this type sends out millions of laser beams and forms a "point cloud" outline of an area such as a building or a roadway overpass; this is then translated into a basic 3D shape or wireframe of the object(s). An associated digital camera can capture textures that can then be applied to the object(s) to result in a photorealistic 3D representation. The 3D scanner (which is about the size of a loaf of bread) can be mounted on top of a vehicle, which can be driven around a large area or a complex building such as a cathedral in order to capture all the sides of the object. Whole city streets can be modeled this way, from 3D scanning systems mounted on vehicles or helicopters (UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have been used for scanning in dangerous urban areas).

A 3D animated representation of COVER going through a city. The bubble represents how it sends the Wi-Fi signal all around.

A 3D animated representation of COVER going through a city. The bubble represents how it sends the Wi-Fi signal all around.

An Application of GIS and the New Internet: the COVER System

An interesting application of 3D GIS merged with New Internet technology is COVER (Collaboration Operations Vehicle for Emergency Response), a type of mobile command post that enables collaboration between different elements of a response team, such as military, law enforcement, firefighters and HAZMAT (HAZardous MATerials) technicians. COVER consists of a protected vehicle with an internal electronics suite that puts up a WI-FI "bubble" a circular area several miles wide within which digital devices such as laptops or online PDAs can all be connected and can communicate with each other. Because COVER uses New Internet (IPv6) technology, it can "discover" relevant digital devices in any area it is entering both the COVER base station and all the players (and sensors) within the bubble know where and who everyone is. A key aspect to enabling everyone to communicate is that everything must be digital for incoming messages from outside of the bubble, COVER incorporates a "debabelizer," a box that accepts normal (analog) radio transmissions at one end and outputs digital (VoIP) transmissions at the other end; at present, firemen, policemen and military teams cannot talk to each other their radios are generally incompatible, creating a Biblical "Tower of Babel" effect.

Once the bubble is established, the base station can pick up data from hundreds, possibly thousands, of sensors in the area. One of the advantages of the New Internet is that all of these sensors will have their own Internet Protocol (IP) addresses (the New Internet allows an almost unlimited number of IP addresses for almost every conceivable object, including webcams and RFIDs), allowing direct access to any one of them. For instance, a policeman about to enter an area can first get a bird's-eye-view of that area, see (on a 3D animated display, which he can rotate and interact with) where video cameras are located, and then address a particular camera and get a video feed from it. He can do the same with gas or radiation detectors. (Precisely this type of interaction has been tested in "shadow exercises" for Homeland Security by San Diego State University, where Eric Frost and Bob Welty, co-directors of the Center for Information Technology and Infrastructure (CITI) supported emergency response teams operating throughout the Super Bowl and other events see www.shadowbowl.com.)

The COVER base station merges the different types of GIS data (both 2D and 3D) on advanced high-speed onboard computers and storage and makes it available to the teams operating in the area. The availability of 3D virtual versions of the urban terrain allows the team elements to conduct "mission rehearsals" traveling through the virtual terrain, interacting with each other and with simulated crisis elements such as dirty bombs or terrorists before moving into the actual physical space. This use of 3D animation was widely practiced before each of the two recent Gulf wars, where military crews used networked simulators to conduct missions in digitized versions of Iraq's landscape and towns, with the ability to make mistakes (such as getting lost) while still in a safe place, BEFORE the actual operation started. COVER will bring this type of simulation capability to joint military/civilian teams, which will enter the virtual world with their on-hand digital displays connected to the base station via the wireless WLAN.

The armored vehicle the COVER system is housed in.

The armored vehicle the COVER system is housed in.

COVER (which is supported by military, civilian and university sponsors) will serve as a 3D GIS center during future responses to crisis operations. It will contain 3D versions of the areas it is moving through; if these databases do not exist, COVER will conduct its own scanning operations. Organizing, storing and retrieving the vast amounts of terrain-based data will be a major challenge; for this, COVER can use versions of the existing DAM (digital asset management) tools from the entertainment community (such as NXN's Alienbrain Studio), which are adept at letting users look for data graphically (by thumbnails or previews) rather than by long technical descriptions, and also enable collaboration with graphic interaction such as letting a user circle a window in a photo with a digital marker pen and ask his teammates, "What's this?" (He can also attach other photos or video clips as reference material.)

Discovering the 3D World

3D GIS will have several effects on our community. One will be a tremendous volume of work it will take untold thousands of man-hours to digitize just the major areas of large American and other global cities, not to mention the miles of oil and gas pipelines, airports, petrochemical plants and other construction projects that will be re-created as high-resolution virtual environments. As aforementioned, this will keep both large and small GIS and graphics companies busy for years to come. But there is another effect that may well take place. We will start looking at the world and our knowledge about it in a different way. The traditional means of educating someone about the world was far away from an actual location, in a school of some sort, where volumes of facts (geography, history, economics, text and photos) were funneled into the student (in a fashion somewhat similar to stuffing a turkey or a Christmas goose), in the hopes that he/she would coordinate related facts and remember them many years later when arriving at a particular locale. For future generations, the relevant facts for any particular location may be tied to that place as a dataset, to be discovered by the interested visitor that comes to that particular neighborhood. In a way, coming upon such a location-based treasure could be similar to grabbing a "power-up" in a videogame. Discovering multimedia packets of information having a particular place literally "speak to us" could alter our mindsets and expectations about the world around us. The GIS professionals especially the graphics wizards working in the many projects in this area are looking forward to that day.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced video games for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

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