Tuesday, June 2, 2009

software: the world is flat but for my house

Google was at Maker Faire promoting SketchUp, a 3D program.

One of the things it can do is texture the surfaces of a model. Wait, Google Maps has a top-down picture of your house from satellite imagery. So draw boundary lines on the edges of your roof, then extrude vertically, then pull up the roof line, and you have a crude wooden-block house shape with your roof. Next, Google Street View may have a drive-by panorama of your house, assuming an angry luddite mob didn't block Google's camera car. So grab the street view and paste it on the front of the model. Five minutes later (assuming you've spent months or years mastering the unintuitive mysteries of a 3-D modeling program) you have a passable representation of your house. You can upload this to Google's 3-D warehouse of SketchUp designs, and you can place it in Google Earth, a more sophisticated version of Google Maps that presents landmarks and other geographic data anywhere and everywhere on earth. When people waltz around your neighborhood in Google Earth, they'll see your dollhouse.[*]
SketchUp house in Google Earth
In the screenshot, the panel below is Google Earth's in-program browser with the house model that Google's 3D ninja whipped up. (Click the screenshot to see more of the Google Earth program).

Yes my neighbors' houses are all low-rise ranch houses sunk into the earth, and there really is a 7-meter shiny ball parked on the street!

Google is crowd-sourcing the creation of a 3-D model of the world. As builders and planners and amateurs create more 3D models, the virtual world gets fleshed out until a fly-through in Google Earth is a pretty good approximation of being there. You can see downtown and the Bay Bridge are getting filled in.
view of downtown SF
It's more evidence for my thesis that computer previsualizations of movies will be good enough to replace the filmed movie.

All of these tools and programs are free, I don't know where Google makes money. Google is looking to get 3D into the browser, so soon you'll get all this in Google Maps; maybe Google will sell billboards in virtual earth. Or maybe they'll charge to have you socialize in it with other avatars.

[*] If you want to see my house, you've got to ask for the additional 3-D warehouse, it doesn't appear automatically. I guess that provides some protection for Google against complaints from house-proud owners that a griefer uploaded a model that makes their property look ugly, or shows a guy mooning out of a window.

An interesting question is why doesn't Google automate this. They have the overhead picture, they have the front picture, so run some AI to glue the two together so my neighbors' houses poke out of the ground to form a 3D canyon.
Road Rash screenshot
I asked Google's modeling ninja and he said the AI isn't smart enough to do it. 10 years ago MetaCreations released Canoma which supposedly let you semi-automatically pin photographs onto 3D shapes and it would guess the outlines of the building. Despite all the wonders our network of computers is producing, hard AI remains hard.

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