Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Interacting in Google Earth: Creating a "Political Ecology Alternate Reality Game" -- The Sky's the Limit!

"Good morning class! It's a bright sunny day with a mild breeze here in Essen, Germany; perfect for taking a run down by the Baldeneye See. I would love to show you the locks along the river that have made transporting goods so cost efficient for the past couple of centuries that "land-locked" areas like Westphalia have been able to prosper long before the Autobahn and other highway systems transformed our landscape and environment.

"Of course, this is an on-line course and you are in places as far away as Texas and North Carolina and Dobbs Ferry, New York, and I don't have time to put together a video for the class like I did when we visited the Zeche Zollverein coal mine to discuss how air quality has affected psychology since Germany switched to natural gas.

"So what to do? We talked at the beginning of the class about using Second Life as a way to meet and explore environments in 3 Dimensions and interact in real time. The problem, of course, is that Second Life is a fictitious environment, so while it offers many simulation possibilities, it can't help us with historical or contemporary spatial geography.

"Now, however, in researching ways to create our "Political Ecology Alternate Reality Game", I have stumbled upon the good news that we may soon be able to use Google Earth as our "realistic" version of Second Life.

First, there was the discovery that Google Earth already has a built in flight-simulator. Type Ctrl + Alt + A (Win) or Open Apple Key-option-A (Mac) and you can choose between F16 fighter plane or an SR22 Propellor plane. Then you can select any airport in the world for your take-offs and landings, or start in the air and fly anywhere on the known earth from right above your favorite location. With so many Google Sketchup models beginning to turn Google Earth into a truly 3D landscape, Google Earth is quickly becoming the best flight simulation game out there! Marco Gallota gives great examples and pics on his blog.
Folks reacting to Marco's enthusiasm on have predicted that we will soon be able to use Google Earth as a hyper realistic virtual gaming environment, replete with user controllable avatars. This would be perfect for the development of our "serious" gaming -- the Solar Cities Political Ecology ARG (Alternate Reality Game) that was inspired by Buckminster Fuller's World Game.

There are already tools that are making more personal interaction with Google Earth possible. One that I downloaded last night, called "Unype" , created by (and you will like this as Mercy College students!) New York's own Murat Aktihanoglu. Murat is not affiliated with Google but offers his excellent program for free in the best cyberpunk spirit (remember the cyberpunk motto is "information longs to be free!"). Clearly Murat is an aficianado of Neil Stephenson's seminal novel "Snow Crash" (which inspired Second Life) as the avatar he created for Unype in Google Earth for his tutorial is named "Hiro Protagonist"!

Murat's brilliant program allows a "multi-user Google Earth Environment" and works in tandem with Facebook and Skype. When you launch these three programs simultaneously, the Keyhole Mark Up language
file generated (yes, that is what .KML really means, in case you forgot -- though I have encouraged you to think of it as a "coordinate markup language") lets you see where your facebook friends are in Google Earth, lets you coordinate your actions via Skype (here is the tutorial) and moves your avatar around their Google Earth (and vice versa) as you explore Google Earth locations on your screen. That way you can follow people down paths and yes, I could take you on a tour of the Locks in the Baldeneysee river!

Due to limitations in the Google API (not in Unype allegedly) the avatars are static 3D meshes (no moving feet or arms or faces, but fully skinned and texture mapped) and they don't move freely -- there is a lag, so they kind of "hop" around the screen every few seconds as you move your cursor. It ends up feeling a bit like playing a protracted game of chess.

In time, however, we can expect the Google API to improve once they see how useful Mr.
Aktihanoglu's app is (we know from on-line gaming that bandwidth is not necessarily the issue).

How soon can we expect Google Earth to take on the true characteristics of an on-line game experience and thus be useful for creating our Political Ecology ARG? Rumors are flying, but there is a hopeful site with encouraging news called Ogle Earth that keeps you updated about all developments in virtual earth technology. They inform us that Google Earth is already working with Chinese developers to come up with true avatars for Google Earth, and that part of what is driving this seems to be healthy competition with Bill Gates' Virtual Earth technology.

Apparently everybody wants to make a real world version of Second Life that lets virtual shopping interface with real shopping (try it, then buy it). Our hope in this Environment and the Psychology of Behavior class, and at Solar Cities, is that the potential of using these GUI's for social and environmental justice is not lost on the developer community! Bill and Melinda Gate's foundation does great things in Africa, for example, and with the advent of the "hundred dollar laptop" -- IF the computer designers to skimp on the processing power -- it should be possible for even the poorest among us to participate in the redesign and improvement of our communites.

In a few weeks, when I have finished creating some of the buildings and "green technologies" for the slums of Cairo, you will be able to download the .KMZ files (zipped forms of .KML files) of our field work locations from (which is very much still under construction) and install Unype and Skype and register on Facebook and we will take a "class field trip" to the poorest sections of Cairo, Egypt, and take a look at our development efforts in Darb El Ahmar with the Muslim craftspeople community of Medieval Cairo and Manshiyat Nasser with Coptic Christian Zabaleen garbage recycling community.

From this tour (an analogue in virtual reality of the tour we took Professor Randall Crane and his 25 graduate students of Urban Planning from UCLA last year) you may find yourself inspired to come and work with us or to contribute some of your ideas for sustainable development on-line.

The idea, of course, is to turn Game Development into a vehicle for Sustainable Development!

And now, with Google Sky giving us the possibility to actually leave the Earth and explore the heavens, we may even be able to further Pat Friedrich's excellent class project, and virtually terraform Mars!

It seems that as we develop our political ecology Alternate Reality game using Google Earth, the Sky's the limit!!


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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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DikDik said...

Some of us agree that Google Earth has interactive possibilities that will forever expand the realm of communications.

Nice website! It deserves a bookmark and frequent visits. May I offer some personal adventure stories with geo-spatial references ala Google Earth?