Tuesday, February 20, 2007

World Wind 4.1 vs. Google Maps: Map Viewing in the early 21st century

I like maps. Old, new, hand-drawn, or digital. I like the stories they tell. An offshoot of this fascination with maps is a fascination with the images sent back by probes sent to nearly all the planets of our solar system, including Earth. The two most interesting (for me) applications for viewing Earth images are Google Maps (GM) and Nasa's World Wind (WW) application.

I recently installed World Wind 1.4 and went zooming around the Earth with it. It's slick. On my notebook the response to moving over the surface or zooming in or out is silky smooth and immediate. While I had WW up I decided to compare its satellite imaging with Google Maps. While the majority of sites look identical or nearly identical, some of the sites under World Wind are deliberately obfuscated to the point where, if you want a clear image, you're better off using Google Maps. First example, my favorite paranoia place, Area 51. The first image is from WW, the second from GM.

GM has matured since its initial introduction. I can't believe everything I can spot on the map. I was surprised that I could zoom as far as I could with Area 51, but I did reach a point where GM couldn't (or wouldn't) get any closer. Unfortunately I didn't see any UFOs parked on the tarmac. Maybe they had their cloaking devices active.

A more serious area to view is the hole in the ground where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood. Since the urban data for WW is current only up to 2000, I zoomed over to the area in New York and looked down. I then looked at the same location in GM.

I don't know how current the images are for GM, but for me it was sobering enough to look at the before (WW) and after (GM) of 9/11.

World Wind is a cool application. I use it for general viewing of the Earths surface. If I want more detailed urban information I use Google Maps. I'm waiting for Nasa to finish the Java version of WW. The current version requires .Net 2.0 and DirectX, which pretty much ties the application to Windows. I'm learning to use WW to do other things, such as view the surface of Mars. Both are a lot of fun.

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