Profile: Earth to Google

Meet the man who fit our planet inside your desktop.

by / March 1, 2007
Chikai Ohazama performs amazing feats.

He takes satellite reconnaissance, aerial surveying and global GIS mapping -- eye-glazing subjects for most people -- and transforms them into popular and revolutionary applications. Ohazama, who helped develop Google Earth, has given average people a near superhuman ability -- to fly around the world in mere seconds, to roar through the deepest canyons and soar to the highest mountains -- all with a few clicks and drags of the mouse.

Prior to building Google Earth, Ohazama spent several years toying with 3-D graphics. After earning a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt and a Ph.D. in the same field from Duke, Ohazama helped found Keyhole Corp. in 2000, where he explored combining powerful graphics with geospatial data. The inspiration for what would become Google Earth came from a demonstration of a program called Space-to-Face, built by Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI).

"The idea was out there with a demo from SGI to bring this technology -- which used to only be on multimillion dollar machines and high-end 3-D graphics systems and so forth, and requires a lot of hardware -- to the masses," Ohazama recalled. "With the advent of consumer 3-D graphics, a lot of progress was made by [3-D graphics developers] ATI and Nvidia, and taking that technology along with the Internet and using these technologies to bring the GIS imagery technology to the [public]."

Seasoned Google Earth users probably find that peering into one's own backyard -- followed by neighbors' backyards -- is the first order of business, then maybe viewing a childhood home or school. Soon they're revisiting favorite vacation destinations, exploring the natural wonders of the planet or searching for proof of extraterrestrials in the vast expanse of the Nevada desert that's home to the infamous, officially nonexistent Area 51.

As Google Earth users explore the planet as they never have before, they may begin to wonder just where all this imagery comes from. Those who think they're in the know say it's a bunch of satellite images stitched together. That, it turns out, is only part of it.

"The imagery comes from a variety of sources ranging from Digital Globe [a private satellite imagery firm], as well as aerial photography companies that take imagery of different areas," Ohazama explained. "We also get a lot from free data sources. The USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] and the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] are doing major flyovers for coverage, whether for agriculture, general GIS or mapping for the government." The imagery is available free online, he said, adding that Google gets imagery from small municipalities and states.

Google Earth was born as a project called "Earth Viewer," which was Ohazama's effort to bring a sophisticated, largely inaccessible technology to the general public in a simple, easy-to-use format. The format would also need to run using the average consumer desktop graphics-rendering capability.

For Ohazama, the challenge was dealing with the massive amounts of data that photographic mapping of the Earth required. Further, if he solved that problem, Ohazama still had to build an application people would want to use.

In 2004, Keyhole was acquired by Google, and in 2005, Earth Viewer was renamed Google Earth. Since then, Ohazama has served as project manager and continues to refine Google Earth so the average user gets more out of it. One recent development was the advent of true 3-D terrain.

For example, a user can fly over the Himalayas and tilt the viewing angle to reveal the elevation and relief of the mountain range. As the perspective changes, Mount Everest begins to rise higher and higher, tearing into the clear, virtual blue sky.

Numerous cities have received the 3-D treatment as well -- after careening through the Grand Canyon, users can soar through the man-made canyons of the big cities.

Ohazama loves to play with the incredible exploratory capabilities that Google Earth affords. Sometimes he likes to traverse the forbidding Sahara desert or scout for icebergs in the Arctic sea. Many times, however, he uses Google Earth for more practical purposes.

"Let's say I went to a concert and I needed to find parking -- I use Google Earth to find it," he said. "Or I'd find out how the turnoff from the highway works -- if you turn off, does it force you to go right? Is there a median in the road? Can you turn left? Actually seeing the place and virtually driving it before you get there to get a sense of what's going on."

These days, Ohazama continues to enhance Google Earth and implement new tools, such as Google Moon and Google Mars. Should you ever find yourself as an astronaut bouncing around on Mars, you'll be well prepared. As for the future of Google Earth, Ohazama wants to continue blurring the line between the real and the virtual worlds.

"I want to make it as realistic as possible, a digital version of the real Earth. That would be pretty cool to see. Zoom it down anywhere, and it's just like walking through San Francisco or visiting Paris."
Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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