Published online 15 February 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060213-8

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The virtual world gets bigger

Tools set for use in three-dimensional modelling of everything from our anatomy to the Solar System.

A Google Earth representation of a London landmark: the BT Tower.A Google Earth representation of a London landmark: the BT Tower.© : Dr Andrew Hudson-Smith, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London

Scientists are already using globe-imaging software such as Google Earth and other virtual globes to do amazing things with data about our planet and the things living on it.

Arctic researchers can use live data about both sea ice and the positions of walruses to answer questions about animal behaviour, for example, and to share that with the public (see <?xm-replace_text ?>'The web-wide world'). Other scientists are using Google Earth to display images following natural disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes, to aid humanitarian relief efforts (see 'Mapping disaster zones').

But away from the hard geographical realities of drifting icebergs and earthquake zones, scientists are planning to take global imaging software to new levels.

Michael Goodchild, a geographer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, points out that the basic principle underlying Google Earth (see 'How Google Earth works') is simply the projection of data into a three-dimensional space. So it is a short step from a model of the Earth to a model of the human body or molecules, he says.

Three-dimensional architectural models, for example, are already finding their way into Google Earth, courtesy of Andrew Hudson-Smith, an architectural researcher at University College London, UK. Hudson-Smith is using the software to create a 'virtual London'. Google Earth is a "godsend", he says, arguing that virtual globes will change the way we plan cities.

NASA’s World Wind programme lets users take a spin on the Moon.NASA’s World Wind programme lets users take a spin on the Moon.© NASA World Wind

"The applications we have seen have been very impressive," says Brian McClendon, engineering director for Google Earth. "I had always thought that things like this would be possible, but I'm very surprised to see it happen in such a short period of time."

Out of this world

A less down-to-Earth possibility is offered by databases that contain stacks of information about planets other than our own, such as the US Geological Survey's astrogeology database. Visualizing such data in virtual globes is now a relatively straightforward task.

NASA's World Wind geobrowser already lets users explore the moon as a virtual globe, using 20-metre resolution data from the Clementine satellite. And Skyline Software Systems offers a Mars browser. "It would be possible to project other planets in Google Earth," says McClendon, noting that they did a demonstration of 'Google Mars' during their software development. Those in the field expect, over the next few months, to see detailed pan-and-zoom virtual globes of all the objects in our Solar System, and beyond.

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Navigating the Universe itself is a more difficult task, as one must define a space far more complex than a simple sphere. One piece of software, Celestia, has already attempted a simulation of 100,000 stars, with the added bonus of having time as a changing dimension.

With that in the works, it may not be long before star-gazers will have the aid of an easy-to-use Google Sky.

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