Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Drama -- and Data -- in the Round ; as Technology Improves, Digital Globes Can Change Ways We See the Earth

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Drama -- and Data -- in the Round ; as Technology Improves, Digital Globes Can Change Ways We See the Earth

Article excerpt

Digital globes can transform how we see the world, especially if prices come down.

In the main hall of the hands-on science exhibits at the Cape Town Science Centre, a lifeless, tattered globe stands under naked fluorescent bulbs, all but ignored by children passing through on school tours.

Across a sunblasted courtyard and up a dingy staircase, another globe -- a digital globe -- stands in a darkened room. This globe is a shining sphere of light. Children stand awe-struck; adults of a certain age may be reminded of images like Apollo 8's Earthrise photograph, while Tolkien fans of all ages will recall the spherical, swirling "palantir" of Saruman in "The Lord of the Rings."

Until recently, cost and technical limitations have largely confined these modern spheres to institutional settings like science centers. But as technology improves and prices fall, it's growing more likely that a digital orb will someday arrive in a classroom or boardroom, perhaps even a living room, near you.

As the name suggests, a digital globe is a spherically shaped display screen. Like the old-school globes once common in classrooms, digital globes vary in size, but a typical model is around two feet across, about 0.6 meters. Unlike the globes of your childhood, the image on a digital globe can be changed with the touch of a button. Controlled by a keyboard or tablet computer, a digital globe can toggle between familiar, static images, like the world's political boundaries, topography or vegetation. It can animate complex phenomena, like the formation of weather systems, the effect of global warming on wolverine habitats or the annual pulse of sea ice. It can display the surface of the moon, the churning azure cloudscapes of Neptune or the celestial globe, the night sky.

A globe can illuminate the human planet: wars, colonization, the formation of diaspora, modern trade flows or air traffic. It can also help teach math, play games, show movies or serve as a blank canvas for one's inner, spherical artist. Michael Starobin, a 44- year-old multimedia guru and the award-winning producer of seven spherical films, describes this brave new world as limited by only one rule: "Respect the roundness."

Easier said than done.For centuries mapmakers have tried to smooth a round planet onto flat maps with as little distortion (and controversy: see Mercator, G.)as possible. Makers of globes (including, we forget, Mercator himself)confronted an opposite problem: How to efficiently place or print information onto a spherical surface.

For digital globe engineers, the holy grail remains a spherical computer screen. Edward R. Tufte, the author of "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information," is enthusiastic about the potential of digital globes to remind us of Earth's offline realities -- "by forgetting about the 3-D whole Earth, flatland economic optimizing leads to global pessimizing" -- as well as the possibility that a company like Apple will someday soon roll out a retina-caliber spherical display. Until that happens, digital globes will rely on optical projectors. But how do you project an image so that it lands equally bright, focused and undistorted on the surface of a sphere?

There are various optical solutions. But the broadest distinction is whether the image is externally or internally projected. The market for externally projected globes -- e.g., Science on a Sphere, the popular devices installed at around 85 institutional locations - - is limited by cost, the fixed nature of the installation and the fact that a viewer who gets too close may find herself contemplating one of the memorable descriptions of the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent, "the shadow of God on Earth."

Rather, the digital globes that may soon break out of the science museum use internal projectors. Even then, they cast an imperfect light on the world. A small portion of the area near the South Pole, if you've chosen to align the Earth's axis vertically, is blocked by the projector and base. …

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