Thursday, July 30, 2009

Immersive video yet to make its mark

When Google first released its StreetView add-on to Google Map it immediately caught attention of millions despite being quite rudimentary. The concept was not new. I remember viewing a very similar application for Miami a few years earlier. I can't find a link to that site but it was very impressive, with much smoother transitions between the scenes and better quality of images. Yet StreetView predecessor barely registered on the Internet.

Not many may know that Google was also experimenting with video equivalent of what is now StreetView scenes. It was one of those "jaw dropping" technologies that so far did not make to the big league. The 360 degree navigation of streaming video is quite impressive yet Google decided do abandon this capability. I suspect there were at least two reasons -the volume of data that would be required for movie-like StreetView of the entire world and potential difficulties in dealing with privacy issues (ie. lack of capability of blurring efficiently faces and number plates, and blocking individual scenes, which is much easier with static images). And then there is also a possibility of adding more functionality to interact with static images (street names and symbolic directions, merging StreetView with other imagery on the Internet, etc. ) but I think it was more an afterthought rather than a planned end game from day one.

[video courtesy of; click and scroll the mouse to look in any direction!]

Not all "exciting new technologies" make it big because of too cautious approach from its creators, or lack of practical use, or not enough luck with investors, strategic mistakes or else. Potential users of those technologies are not rational either, as we all know from the outcome of the battle between VHS and Beta video systems, so not always "the best one" wins. It will be interesting to watch whether immersive video technology can make it to the mainstream of consumer electronics (eg as cameras enabling capturing 360 degree video images) and consumer applications (eg. like online sightseeing, real estate house demonstrations, etc). For now though, the battle is brewing between Miscosoft's Photosynth and Googles StreetView for the online interactive imagery viewing capabilities.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Google has Photosynth in sight

Google engineers have just added a new functionality to StreetView that will take some shine off Microsoft's Photosynth. Now you have the option to preview user uploaded images from Panoramio in StreetView mode AND navigate those images in Photosynth-like manner (ie. footprints and relative perspective of related images are displayed on the background image as a white, transparent overlay; double-clicking on the overlay will load a new image into the viewer). Try for yourself: go to Google Map and type "Sydney Opera House" in the search box, then select StreetView option and click on "user photos". When you move the mouse around white overlays of related imagery will start to appear on the screen.

It is all still a bit raw but with more photos depicting a given landscape it should be a much better experience. I believe the next step will be an integration of user added images with actual StreetView scenes. The same "double-click zoom on white overlay" functionality is already implemented in StreetView viewer so it may be only a matter of "merging" the two together.

I must admit that Google's implementation is much more closer to the original concept behind Photosynth than the product ultimately delivered by Microsoft. That is, the starting point was to organise millions of photos available on the Internet into a seamless, 3-dimensional view of the world. Yet Microsoft abandoned that path and released Photosynth as a personal image viewer (and a stand alone product for corporate clients). It looks that Google may win yet another battle for the dominance on the Internet.

Friday, July 24, 2009

New features on Google Map for mobile v3.2

The latest upgrade of Google Map for mobile phones extends the functionality of the application and allows simultaneous viewing of multiple information layers on top of background map. The layers include traffic, local search results for business listings, Latitude friend locations and points-of-interest descriptions from Wikipedia. Google also enabled viewing user created My Maps content as a layer and there were significant improvements made in presentation of local search results on the map. For full description of new features please see Google Mobile blog.

Google Maps for mobile works on most phones including:
  • Android
  • iPhone (pre-installed)
  • All color BlackBerry devices
  • Most Java-enabled (J2ME) mobile phones
  • Windows Mobile devices with Windows Mobile 5.0 and above
  • Symbian S60 3rd Edition (most new Nokia smartphones and all 3G Symbian devices)
  • Palm devices with Palm OS 5 and above
As with many “things Google”, there are different options to view maps on your mobile device and there is extensive functionality available for each of these options but you have to discover it all for yourself. Documentation can be confusing. For clarity, maps for mobile are different from recently upgraded Google Map v3 available for Internet browsers (including those on mobile devices!)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Map basics: datum, coordinate system, projection

Map projections, coordinate systems and geodetic datums are not the most exciting topics to discuss in reference to maps but any user of geographic information should have at least a basic understanding of the concepts.

In a nutshell, Earth is an oblate spheroid an in order to represent its surface as a flat map, complex mathematical transformations are required.

[oblate spheroid - image courtesy of Wikipedia]

Geodetic datum defines reference points on the Earth's surface against which position measurements are made. Central to this concept is an associated model of the shape of the Earth (that is, reference spheroid) to define a coordinate system.

Map coordinates are usually shown in one of two ways, as geographical coordinates (ie latitude and longitude values, in degrees) or grid coordinates, (as easting and northing values, in metres).

Map projection is a method of representing the surface of a sphere on a plane. By definition, all map projections show a distorted representation of the Earth surface therefore different map projections exist in order to preserve some properties of the sphere-like body (ie. either area, shape, direction, bearing, distance and/or scale) at the expense of other properties.

What does it all mean? The key point is that commonly quoted “geographic coordinates” (eg Sydney Opera House: lat, lng) are only meaningful in reference to a specific datum (eg. that point is shifted approximately 200m on AGD66 datum as compared to GDA94 datum). And to represent that point properly on a map you will also need to know projection of the map, otherwise the point may be depicted in a wrong place.

[example of mismatch resulting from source data being in geographic projection and the underlying map in Mercator projection]

More examples to illustrate the point. Satellite based navigation systems (the Global Positioning System or GPS) are becoming more and more popular in Australia so users should be aware that GPS coordinates are based on WGS84 datum, which is different from official Australian datum GDA94 (different spheroid definitions were used). All current official maps and data in Australia are based on GDA94. However, luckily, the difference between WGS84 and GDA94 is negligible and for most common uses both datums can be used interchangeably.

As to map projections, when you have a map showing just a few streets, projections don’t really matter. Similarly, if you view small scale maps in atlases or on wall posters, projection rarely comes to mind simply because it has already been determined by the author to best represent the phenomenon and also to “look nice”. However, when you deal with raw geographic data (whether vector – points, lines and polygons, or raster - images) and need to compile them into a map, projections of source data and final map are of outmost importance. Similarly, if you need to take a reliable measure of distance or area on the map you have to know which projections preserve those properties and therefore are the most appropriate to use.

The following is an illustration of the “distortions” in representation of shapes on a map due to different projections. The first image was generated by applying a common projection to input data and the second shows the result of not applying any projection at all.

[image courtesy of Statistics Canada]

Projections that you are most likely to encounter in Australia are:

1. Geographic/Equirectangular projection: a de-facto standard for computer applications because of the connection between an image pixel and its geographic position.

The following are the international reference codes to precise definitions of the transformation: EPSG:4326 (WGS84 datum) and Australian specific EPSG:4283 (GDA94 datum) – for all common purposes, they are interchangeable, unless you require a sub-meter accuracy.

[image courtesy of]

2. Transverse Mercator projection used with Universal Transverse Mercator coordination system (UTM zones 49 to 56) - suitable for measuring distances and areas; mostly used for medium scale printed maps.

3. Lambert Conformal Conic projection (EPSG:3112) - well approximates distance between two points; often used for aeronautical charts, small scale maps or road maps.

[image courtesy of]

4. Mercator projection (EPSG:3395) - used for Google Map, Virtual Earth/ Bing Map, and all tile based online maps – distance between two points on the map is distorted, the more the further you move from the equator.

Individual States in Australia also define their own local projections for variety of purposes so it is always wise to check metadata before putting the data to any use.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Free GPS navigation tool for iPhone

A new entrant into Australian GPS navigation market, NAVIGON AG, has just released a free application for iPhone to allow users to display their current position on a map as well as search for nearby points of interest (POIs). MobileNavigator LITE is a scaled down version of NAVIGON’s flagship product that will soon be launched in Australia. It will transform any iPhone 3G equipped with the new Apple OS 3.0 operating system and any iPhone 3G S into a complete navigation device. The LITE version also works on iPod Touch devices with the OS 3.0.

[image courtesy of]

Although the LITE version has no active route guidance, it comes with free NAVTEQ® maps which are saved directly on the device, eliminating the need for paid subscription to map service or for downloading the maps as a data feed. The downside is a massive initial download (reported to be more than 1GB!).

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mobile map giveaway from Nokia

Nokia, the world’s largest mobile handset supplier has just released full production version of its free Ovi Map. The 3.0 version includes 3-D views (and 3-D landmarks for over 200 cities), weather information, walking and driving directions, and POI (point of interest) data from Lonely Planet, Michelin and Wcities. Ovi Maps 3.0 can be downloaded from Nokia's Web site and will work in any phone compatible with Symbian S60 3rd and 5thEdition operating system (see list of supported handsets).

[image courtesy of]

Launch of the first version of Ovi Maps coincided with the acquisition of Navteq by Nokia for U$8.1 billion in 2007. The market considered the purchase price as excessive. As one analyst put it, “…we think [it] is more about long-term control and inhibiting competition than about a financial investment in a growing asset”. But for Nokia, the acquisition was a logical step in a transformation from a world-leading handset vendor into a provider of Internet-based services and applications over a broad range of Nokia-branded devices.

As the competition for the mobile and online services market intensifies more and more companies will be prepared to bundle functional widgets with their core offerings just to maintain the position. It means there will be more and more freebies for the consumers but also that marginal industries, like mobile and online mapping technology vendors, will be devalued (that is, a few lucky ones will be bought out and the rest will struggle to compete with freebies). This is another example that online/mobile maps are becoming just a commodity.