Virtual Globes, Digital Domes, Wearable Technology, and Immersive Geospatial Imaging
Since the development of digital virtual globes such as Google Earth and NASA World Wind around the turn of the millennium, it has been possible for anyone with access to a computer to zoom out from street view to astronaut’s vista, and travel rapidly through time, at least in virtual reality. Virtual Globes serve as geo-browsers, allowing one to explore surface features with links to text, digital imagery, and 3D models. The author has developed ways to visualize the sub-surface and to view virtual specimens. As happened with flat web browsers in the previous decade, there is a rapid trend away from mere passive viewing to content creation and sharing amongst millions of fellow contributors. Geoscientists have just begun to exploit the vast potential of GigaPans and Photo Spheres for education and research.
A revolution is also transforming planetariums. Opto-mechanical star balls are being replaced by full-dome digital projection, expanding the range of topics that can be presented beyond positional astronomy to include geospatial sciences. Full-dome projection creates an immersive environment by filling the observer’s peripheral vision with the image. Absent a picture frame or computer screen edge, the brain embeds the self in the scene. When a virtual globe is projected so as to fill at least a third of the dome, the brain converts the concave image to convex, creating a 4D visualization of the Earth and other planets and moons.
The next wave of immersive geospatial imaging technology is already breaking with the development of wearable devices such as GoPro, Cardboard, and the forthcoming Oculus Rift. Reality is augmented by hardware such as Google Glass and software such as FreshAiR. Technology is opening up new possibilities for data mining (e.g. Geo MapApp) and crowd-sourcing. There are profound implications for growing and diversifying the geoscience workforce. Both agile and sessile individuals can experience truly immersive sensations of being present almost anywhere on Earth—and beyond.