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Friday, August 11, 2006

Google Earth for education and science

Okay, I admit it. My title is search engine bait. I'm not really advocating Google Earth. That's because Google Earth is eye candy. It may have better images in some places, so yes, you can see your house. But I am getting sick and tired of everyone fawning Google Earth as the globe viewer. If you've read my blog before, you know what's coming next.
NASA World Wind is a program with the same basic premise (3D globe) that is built from the start for science and educational purposes, not for pretty eye candy. It's way more extensible (get over KML), it's actively developed, full of a very helpful community that bases some of its developments around requests. Much of the functionality is community-driven. Correct me if I'm wrong, but every planet avaliable (and there are plenty) other than Earth and SDSS (that's the universe) began as community add-ons. In fact, I think SDSS was brought up by a community member.
All well and good, you say, "But what's in it for me? Yeah, you get the warm fuzzy feeling, but I just want to get stuff done." Okay, here are a few good things about World Wind (referred to spastically as WW):

  • Community. Sure, Google Earth has a community, but I don't feel the friendliness. Not to mention World Wind's community is very helpful. For an example, check out the exchange I recently had with a WW user. It's a good example of how things can work. By the way, I'm not done with that scale.

  • Building on that, the plugin and add-on structure. That's what enables normal community members (like me) to do cool stuff. KML may be cool, but it has limits. With WW, the Plugin API is a lot more flexible - and will continue getting better

  • Flexibility. It doesn't just have one set of imagery - you can pick from several layers. Forget GE's patchwork, pick what you want to see.

  • It has stuff first a lot of times. It just doesn't get the hype. Examples:

    • Mars. WW had Mars almost a year before Google did. But no one heard about it. And, see the item above, there are plenty of choices for how to view it. Choice.

    • GPS Support. Through a, once again, community-developed plugin, GPS support has been in World Wind for a long time - far before GE, and it's free - unlike GE.

    • Our moon (standard). Jupiter (standard). Venus (standard). Saturn, with rings. The Death Star, Tatooine, Endor and Coruscant. Moons for all the above (except Star Wars). The universe. There may be more that I'm missing. Get the point? Notice that ALL of these, with the exception of the moon and possibly SDSS, began with the community.

    • Existence. World Wind came out way before Keyhole became Google Earth. Incidentially, that's why we have KML - K for Keyhole.

  • Rapid and constant development. World Wind is updated pretty frequently. And that brings more benefits.

  • Such as the fact that World Wind is also good a adding things that they don't have. Like KML support - it's there now, and is being improved for then next version. Also, Polygon support - it's here through KML support (yes, that is World Wind). That means buildings. Also, it's supported (and increasingly well) through plugins. People are using it. And there's more, like shapefile support (which is supported, and being improved). I'm too lazy to think of more.

  • Probably the #1 reason World Wind is better:

    It's Free.

    Not only financially (like GE crippleware edition is). Free as in freedom. Meaning you can use worldwind wherever you want. Anywhere. A credit to Nasa is asked for courtesy. That's it. No licensing, no $400 fee to do anything (not that I'm pointing any fingers...). It's free. That means people can use it for brodcasts, documentaries, whatever they may use it for.

  • Teacher interaction. A few teachers are using World Wind in their classrooms and updating us on how they're doing. And there's been work on a student-teacher interaction system, and it will probably be fully here soon, thanks to (ironically enough) Google Summer of Code. Also among those projects you'll notice a couple other things I've mentioned that are "in the works" - shapefile improvements, integrated browser, and other cool stuff.

  • Animations/data. This is a big part of the science/research support - SVS and WMS (built in) provide awesome animations and visualizations. For example, the earth at night - those cool pictures you see with all the lights visible from space - try Human Dimensions. Under Atmosphere, there's a really cool sequence of the ozone hole and its changing size over 2000 - 2003, with pictures every week or two. You can see the hole grow during the winter (summer down there), and see it grow back.

Hopefully I've pointed out some of the advantages, as an end user (that's you), of World Wind. Sure, Google Earth has better imagery in places. But that comes at the cost of freedom. Yeah, Google Earth has 3D models. World Wind does too, now, just not as many. Oh, and want to link to a World Wind location for those who have World Wind? Just hit Ctrl-C when you're looking at what you want to look at, and then Ctrl-V where you want to link it. So if I wanted to show you, say, Niagra falls (hint: turn on USGS 1m and especially ZoomIt!, if it's not) or a cool galaxy, it's that easy. None of this placemark rigamarole that Google Earth does. Oh, and movies - they're free (still a little buggy, I must admit) in World Wind.
So, at least give it a try. You may not be able to see your house, but it's a lot more powerful, flexible, and extensible. And I can tell you one thing - Google Earth is most definitely NOT the 3D globe. Not by a longshot. Flame me if you want, or even better, comment with constructive criticism that fosters discussion. Personal feelings aside, I'm not saying Google Earth is evil. It's good for eye candy. But I am fed up with people blindly accepting it as the only one out there.


Anonymous said...

Actually, Keyhole came out in 2001 (2 years before WW was released).

And we do have eye candies - i.e. sun shading and atmospheric scattering (well, still in

Anonymous said...

OK, I wasn't 100% sure on that. Thanks - fixed. And I can finally work on my comments style - it's not to pretty right now. ;)

Anonymous said...

But don't forget WW started life as blue marble viewer, not sure when that was released, probably before keyhole though.

Anonymous said...

There is also the Keyhole-Skyline lawsuit issue.Given money and licence restrictions it is childs play to get high-res from Google sets into Worldwind.Easily-Smoothly as this Screenie shows. Ugly red loading things you have with overlays in Google Earth which there is little you can do to control.
Also consider the spin-off's such as Dapple.
Worldwind is a bit like Linux of the Globe world.Not with full commercial support and not tonnes of commercial software, but friendly and open with lotsa free stuff.

You if you want commercial support why not employ one of the developers.(I have a job already)

Anonymous said...

Google Earth has big advantage - single image layer with good images for all regions. In WW users have to switch on/off different layers for different areas, this may be difficult for beginners because they need to remember what layer is better for what region. Users need to download some add-ons and use many different and sometimes slow (especially WMS) layers and servers to get good images.

Also when viewing for example US to get good quality on all zoom levels you need to turn on BMNG,NLT,USGS Digital Ortho and USGS Urban Area laers. And they all will be downloded and rendered one on top of another! Simply waste of traffic and CPU (in addition to the fact that WW uses 100% CPU all the time and almost unusable because of this). And also layes can't be specified in worldwind:// links so you need to separately specify what layers to turn on/off to view your link. Single image layer is much better and after I wrote plugin for WW2D to use images from some well-known company I can't live without it.

Of course WW is more extensible but not everybody is programmer and going to write plugins and maybe even build special files for pathlists and placenames. KML is good because has simple XML format with many features, everybody can create KML and share it and load to GE - no need in config files, reloading WW and so on. I know, WW has KMLImporter but I'm not sure about its status currently and it's not WW native format.

So I think that yes, WW is better for science, education and so on. But many end users don't want such complex monstrous thing, they just want to download GE and get what they want out of the box.

Also WW isn't cross-platform yet, while GE already. I even afraid users will use it instead of my WW2D on Linux/Macs..