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Discovery once meant sailing right up to the edges of the known
world, clutching maps whose imagery stopped cold at the frontiers,
then venturing into unexplored terrain beyond. We're running out of
places to conquer, forcing us to delve into the microscopic and the
faraway, searching for new lands in the depths of the sea and the
outer reaches of the galaxies. Digital maps, GPS and Google Earth (which now includes the
oceans, sky and outer space) have greatly extended the range of
armchair explorers, allowing them to plunge into an undersea abyss,
stroll around Mars or Marseille or visit every crater on
the Moon on a computer screen.
The old way of mapping: detail of a 1865 topographical map of
New York City. (Wikimedia
Printed maps required a traveler to possess a certain degree of
graphic literacy; decoding and understanding the visual language of
scale, icons, symbols, color systems and abbreviations took a
little work. Plotting a trip held few surprises, except maybe for
the pleasant realization that a destination was much closer than
you thought, or the shock of finding a mountain range squarely in
your path. Expectations were either met or exceeded upon arrival,
when you first encountered the sights and smells and unfamiliar
beds of your destination.
On computer maps, surprise often comes down to: what the heck
will I get if I click on that icon? Their graphic systems are
harder to decipher with consistency, since clicking on a single
icon may lead to multiple unexpected results. The experience is by
turns frustrating and delightful, introducing an absurd element of
discovery to the cartographic realm. Along with the promise of
knowledge, guidance and entertainment comes visual clutter and
disappointment, prospects raised and hopes dashed.
Today: an aerial view of the AIGA National Design Center in New
York on Google Earth.
The wealth of icons scattered everywhere atop Google Earth's
view of the planet offers up a tantalizing amount of additional
visual information and text, anchored directly to its physical
coordinates. Like the litter that fills our landscapes and oceans,
there is so much linked data; if you make the icons visible for
every available option in Google Earth's Layers palette, you almost
can't see the terrain. Activate one of the inscrutable blue squares
on the Panaramio layer and a glorious photo might pop up. Then,
alas, you also might get a
3-D rendering of the location. Instead of an image of a grand French
château, you may be presented with something reminiscent of a
video game. You could see a random detail shot of the
locale, or an image of someone's prized new car
dominating the foreground, the scenery becoming an incidental
backdrop for conspicuous consumption. It can start to feel like a
relative's vacation slideshow, browsing through many images that
tell you very little.
Aerial view of New York City from 1854. (Norman B. Leventhal
Map Center, Boston Public Library)
On the flip side, the digital discovery process is often
tremendously rewarding as well, leading to happy surprises from the
highbrow to the low. An icon positioned near the front door of the
Madrid, leads to a gallery of 14 masterpieces scanned in such
high definition that zooming in reveals the texture of the canvas
in razor focus. When I clicked a random icon in the ocean off the
western coast of Panama, it called up an irresistible BBC video
floating crabs. Who knew crabs could be charming? (Or that they
In addition to the power to fly through earth and space, digital
maps allow you to play with time. As far back in history as
satellite data is available, the images can be called up to see
what a locale used to look like. It's even possible for the past to
coexist in the same time frame as the present: superimposing views of
new buildings onto old maps of cities creates a palimpsest of
centuries compressed onto your screen. Speaking of time, just
rotating the planet and zooming in and out of views has a hypnotic
quality, and an hour can pass before you know it. This may not be a
boon to good work habits, but it can be a welcome escape if you're
chained to your desk and need a lunch break.
Click on a map of Sully-sur-Loire, France, in Panoramio and see
both photography and CGI renderings of the château.
Traveling through digital geographic environments is nothing
like being there in the flesh, of course, but virtual exploration
is ideal for people who aren't physically able to travel or to
reach places—micro or macro—where ordinary humans can't go. A large
part of the appeal is falling in love with a real landscape during
a virtual tour, walking through the seductive images, seeing what
lies around corners, how the sunlight hits faraway cities, without
leaving your own home. You just might be inspired to book a flight
to see the place for yourself (and snap your own pictures to upload
and share). The online experience can seem curiously real on its
own, too; at times it has a confusing near-authentic quality. When
I got lost undersea looking for the wreckage of the Titanic and all
I could see on my screen was a flat blue field of ocean, I felt a
moment of panic, as if I were running out of air from holding my
breath beneath the waves. If you are prone to carsickness, as I am,
it is very possible you will get queasy during Google Earth's
speedy flyovers. I can't read a map in a moving car and found that
I have to avert my eyes from the screen when I blast from one
continent to another on a digital journey. Art imitates life.
It takes more than a day to fly from New York City to Tokyo, so
I wanted to test the duration of a Google Earth flyover—1 second? 3
seconds? I'm not sure if this was a programmer's idea of a joke,
but when I typed in "get directions," Google Earth earnestly
provided a cross-country auto route (turn right on Canal Street,
make a left at the Holland Tunnel) to the West Coast, where I was
then instructed to "kayak across the Pacific Ocean (6,635 miles)."
Estimated travel time: 36 days, 4 hours. The age of exploration
Recently, FL2 and Modernista! partnered to create a site to bring visitors into the nearly 400 protected parks in the United States.
Section: Why Design -
experience design, web design
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