Digital Globes Offer a Dynamic Vision

Tags: Knowledge

As technology improves, digital orb may very soon replace the traditional globe in a classroom or the boardroom

Digital Globes Offer a Dynamic Vision
In the main hall of the hands-on science exhibits at the Cape Town science centre in South Africa, a lifeless, tattered globe stands under naked fluorescent bulbs, all but ignored by children passing through on school tours.

Across a sunblasted courtyard and up a dingy staircase, another globe — a digital globe — stands in a darkened room. This globe is a shining sphere of light. Children stand awe-struck; adults of a certain age may be reminded of images like Apollo 8’s earthrise photograph, while Tolkien fans of all ages will recall the spherical, swirling “palantír” of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.

Until recently, cost and technical limitations have largely confined these modern spheres to institutional settings like science centres. But as technology improves and prices fall, it’s growing more likely that a digital orb will someday arrive in a classroom or boardroom — even a living room — near you.

As the name suggests, a digital globe is a spherically shaped display screen. Like the old-school globes once common in classrooms, digital globes vary in size, but a typical model is about 24 inches across. Unlike the globes of your childhood, the image on a digital globe can be changed with the touch of a button. Controlled by a keyboard or tablet computer, a digital globe can toggle between familiar, static images, like the world’s political boundaries, topography or vegetation. It can animate complex phenomena, like the formation of weather systems, the effect of global warming on wolverine habitats or the annual pulse of sea ice. It can display the surface of the moon, the churning azure cloudscapes of Neptune or the celestial globe — the night sky.

A digital globe can illuminate the human planet: wars, colonisation, formation of diaspora, modern trade flows or air traffic. It can also help teach math, play games, show movies or serve as a blank canvas for one’s inner, spherical artist.

Michael Starobin, 44, a multimedia professional and the producer of seven spherical films, says this brave new world is limited by only one rule: “Respect the roundness.”

Easier said than done. For centuries mapmakers have tried to smooth a round planet onto flat maps with as little distortion as possible. Makers of globes confronted an opposite problem: how to efficiently place or print information onto a spherical surface.

For digital globe engineers, the holy grail remains a spherical computer screen. Edward R Tufte, the author of The visual display of quantitative information, is enthusiastic about the potential of digital globes to remind us of earth’s offline realities — “by forgetting about the 3D whole earth, flatland economic optimising leads to global pessimising” — as well as the possibility that a firm like Apple will someday soon roll out a Retina-caliber spherical display. Until that happens, digital globes will rely on optical projectors. But how do you project an image so that it lands equally bright, focused and undistorted on the surface of a sphere?

There are various optical solutions. But the broadest distinction is whether the image is externally or internally projected. The market for externally projected globes is limited by cost, the fixed nature of the installation and the fact that a viewer who gets too close may find herself contemplating one of the memorable descriptions of the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent, the shadow of god on earth.

Rather, the digital globes that may soon break out of the museum use internal projectors. Even then, they cast an imperfect light upon the world. A small portion of the extreme southern hemisphere is blocked by the projector and base. Brightness, while vastly improved, also remains an issue.

Beyond those, the biggest obstacle is cost: around $43,000 for a 24-inch diameter HyperGlobe from iGlobe; $40,000 for a 32-inch OmniGlobe from ARC Science, or $21,000 for a 24-inch Magic Planet from the market leader, Global Imagination.

These prices, though, are falling. Mike Foody, the CEO of Global Imagination, says that he hopes to have education-discounted prices down to $2,500 within a year or two. If he succeeds, that would be within the price point of other high-tech classroom equipment, like interactive whiteboards.

Not every school has been content to wait. Since 2007, the Mayo High School in Minnesota, has used a digital globe in earth science lessons. Lawrence Mascotti, director of the school’s planetarium, noted that children today display such confidence with digital media that he regards the globe as a means for teachers to “play” at the students’ level, rather than vice versa.

He also finds the sphere a “more democratic” educational tool than textbooks or computer screens. While some children have difficulty with language-based concepts, the digital globe works for nearly everyone, Mascotti says. “It’s simple. The mind follows the eye.”

Digital globes have obvious relevance to earth sciences and astronomy. But their potential in other subject areas is already being exploited. In China, where digital globes have found particular favour in schools, less than half the lesson plans are science-based, said Foody (in an ironic reversal of globalisation’s typical tide, around 80 per cent of Global Imagination’s orders are bound for China). Chinese schools use them mostly to teach social sciences, like the geography of religion and language.

Whether the digital globe is used to teach earth sciences and astronomy or social sciences, the display itself generally represents earth (or another astronomical body). But Math on a Sphere, a National Science Foundation-financed project, treats the digital globe as a generic spherical screen. In the study’s workshops, children use math skills to build and manipulate their own spherical creations. The results — which suggest art as much as math — will be applicable to classroom-based globes, too. zz


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