Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Next generation Digital Earth - 2020

Responding to a survey from the International Society for Digital Earth got me thinking and offering some thoughts, mostly bits and pieces from previous ramblings on this blog, but maybe some new nuggets. The whole idea of a digital Earth was well formulated in Yale Professor David Gelernter's book “Mirror Worlds” (1991) where he outlined a vision of a future when “You will look into a computer screen and see reality”. Seven years later, then U.S. Vice-President Al Gore outlined his vision of a “Digital Earth” (Gore 1998) which became the benchmark 'vision'. now it seems clear that many of the elements of what these two visions articulated have become reality. Definitely in terms of information management and infrastructures, but also getting closer to move away from a desktop map metaphor to an immersive 3D virtual reality representation of the Earth.

So, for a new vision, Digital Earth 2020, we'd have to think about how recent and emerging technologies and behaviors will contribute. Clearly, the cloud computing paradigm will be instrumental to offer device independent services, and social networking has demonstrated a radically different way to think about data use, production, and analysis - users become producers in VGI and users become analysts in VGA (Volunteered Geographic Analysis, see post above), just look at the protein folding example from last fall. In that context, I maintain that gaming technology and similar simulation platforms will become an essential part of next generation digital earth solutions.

As a way to prescribe attrictive developments, activities like CityOne (mentioned in a previous post) could be embedded in a real data context, allow live data feeds from all types of sensors and mix simulation, what-if scenarios, with individual decisions with a potential to scale into massive multi-user environments doing agent based simulation with real human agents as part of the model, blurring the boundaries between human and machine agents.

The Digital Earth of 2020 will work as a switch-board space for interfacing with the real and the represented world.  A person will use DE-20 to interact with the real world through the digital representations of historic, real-time, and simulated projections of the world to be. Through immersive technology “different place” interactions will become “same place”, you can interact in your place with remote friends through virtually present avatars, and in the reverse, travel places with your avatar and become immersed in those places. See this Microsoft demo  from last year to get a glimpse of what I talk about (they haven't done the avatar yet as far as I know).

Most importantly though, I think the next generation Digital Earth will have to be a cross-cutting venture, across professions and other domains. It should be formed as a trans-disciplinary dialog, not just from a GIS, Comp. Sci. or Remote Sensing perspective, but embrace ideas and approaches in the social sciences, humanities and the arts. All who feel engaged in this development should make sure to invite and bring in riends that are not so engaged and communicate these ideas and extend the invitation to them. Let's build our real and mirror world together!

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