A Sunny Tomorrow Expected for Virtual Worlds17 Nov, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong
Geospatial data opens new doors to environment simulation.
Anybody can check the weather in Anchorage, Alaska, or Daytona Beach, Florida, by logging on to Weather.com, but in Linden Labs' virtual world Second Life (SL), you can actually walk from one state to the other and experience the changing climates along the way. How about looking at the storm clouds gathering above Dallas, Texas, even though you might be sitting in a living room hundreds of miles away? You can now do that in Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D. Bill Gail, director of strategic development for Microsoft Virtual Earth, sees these developments as an indication that we may soon be able to use virtual worlds to simulate and predict environment changes. Before we can put this theory to practice, we'll have to overcome some technological hurdles, and the geospatial community might be best equipped to tackle many of those.
If you're an environment-conscious resident of SL, you now have two new islands to explore: Meteora and Okeanos, built and maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory. After teleporting to Meteora, walk toward what looks like an old airplane hangar. Here, you'll find a 3D national weather map, with storm formations and drizzles reflecting the weather conditions of different regions.
Aimee Weber, who was part of the NOAA Team responsible for creating these islands, reported in the virtual world's news and gossip blog Second Life Insider that "The system works by way of dozens of scripted reporting stations dotted all over a map of the U.S. These stations retrieve METAR (METeorological Aviation Report) data from NOAA every eight minutes, which they then decode and render into models of the appropriate weather phenomenon for the area. … Temperature is represented by warmer and cooler shades of color."
In other areas of NOAA's islands, visitors can fly into the heart of a storm, observe a tsunami at close range, and ride a weather balloon. The landscapes of Meteora and Okeanos don't accurately depict real places, but if it becomes possible to easily reproduce real-world terrains in SL, the virtual world could serve as a lab to run environmental scenarios to learn more about their impacts on our geography.
In his paper titled "Virtual World for Environmental Security," Microsoft's Gail wrote, "Situational management and decision-making tools are critical for environmental natural disaster response, ecosystem preservation, environmental treaty monitoring, and many other environmental security applications. The visual context, shared decision-making capability, and clear communication provided by virtual worlds have made them a highly desired element of such applications by government agencies as well as environmentally sensitive industries."
NOAA's dynamic signpost directs visitors in Second Life to various attractions, including a flight into a hurricane. (Click image for a larger version)
One of the groups that have been experimenting with ways to deploy geospatial data inside SL is Simulator Geospatial Information Services (SIMGIS), the simulator augmentation of GIS. The group reportedly "undertook a proof-of-concept that precise information from geographic information systems (GIS) and field mapping can be coalesced into a metaverse [a virtual environment] purpose-built to enhance delivery of administrative and regulatory services by local government. The platforms chosen for this project include Linden Lab's Second Life, a commercial metaverse accessible worldwide via a free viewer, and OpenSimulator.org simulators running on Ubuntu Linux with Mono [an open-source development platform]."
The result is Berkurodam, a Second Life reproduction of downtown Berkeley, California, complete with a replica of BART, the city's regional commute system. Its creators noted, "Even yet in 2008, little involvement from the geospatial community in simulators has been so public." They hope their exercise will inspire others to pursue similar projects. (You can view a YouTube clip of Berkurodam here.)
Cloud Coverage in Virtual Earth
In September, people logging on to Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D found a new sky hovering over their favorite locations. When they panned their cameras upward, instead of the solid blue they used to see, they were greeted by a much more realistic sky, complete with cloud formations. (You may need to download the latest version and put a checkmark in the 3D Setting dialog box to activate the local weather, as shown here.) In their blog the developers wrote, "This [the cloud data] is updated every three hours, with the update date/time displayed at the bottom right of the screen. Fourteen clouds types are supported."
"We create a forecast on global grids, then we use that data to display the same weather pattern in the corresponding place in Virtual Earth," Gail explained.
In September, Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D began displaying local weather conditions in its skies (image courtesy of Microsoft).
To overtake its rival Google, Microsoft is repackaging the visualization technology from its popular Microsoft Flight Simulator game with the 3D terrains and simulated weather systems under the name Microsoft ESP, targeted mostly at government sectors.
Concluding his paper, Gail wrote, "For environmental security applications, virtual worlds will find many uses. Their ability to address both the physical and functional (behavioral, economic, and social) aspects of the world is central to their utility, as is their inclusion of both reality and fantasy."