GPS Visualizer’s global perspective

The Thinker by Rodin

For as long as I can remember, maps have fascinated me. This may have come from not having a very adventurous childhood. Our vacations, when they happened at all, rarely occurred more than a few hundred miles from home. I never took a commercial airline flight until I was an adult. However, we did have an oversized National Geographic atlas of the world. It was a good way to visit faraway places in my imagination.

I was fortunate enough for a while to work for what was then the Defense Mapping Agency. While I had no training in cartography, I did earn a modest living tracking the printing of various topographic maps and nautical charts used by the military. It was neat to watch the process, from the careful correction of negatives (generally one for each map color) to seeing the map roll off the presses. I left that job more than twenty years ago, and since that time the Defense Mapping Agency has changed names a number of times and now probably produces far more digital products than printed products. For about four years, I was in map heaven. Trying to better track the production of maps lead me into a career in the information technology field that has since kept me well moneyed. Yet, my interest in maps never waned.

So naturally, I was quite agog when Google Earth was introduced in 2005. Who needs television when you can play with Google Earth instead? Since then, the product has gotten progressively better and their street views left me euphoric. Nevertheless, even a product as mature as Google Earth has some limitations. Want to plot a great circle route? There is no way to do it. Want to draw concentric lines around a point on the globe? Here again Google Earth falls short.

Most people don’t want to do these things, but I do. My frustration eventually turned up the GPS Visualizer site, a small work of wonder by itself, as it is a creation of one man, specifically Adam Schneider, who must also have my mapping bug. You can do all these things and more on the GPS Visualizer site.

Great circle routes fascinate me. In case you are not familiar with the term, this is the shortest distance between two points on the earth. The shortest path is not what you would think looking at your typical Cartesian map. You can sort of figure it out if you have a globe with a piece of string, but what you get is an approximation. In the northern hemisphere, trips to anywhere in Europe are typically flown far north of where you would expect them to fly. This is good. It saves the airline a lot of gas. Since the earth is not a perfect sphere, there are some minor errors in most calculations. Schneider has figured it all out and can produce extremely accurate Great Circle routes.

One of the things I like to do is draw great circle routes between far-flung airports. The routes airlines actually fly often differ quite a bit from great circle routes, mainly because in the United States the FAA designates that flights must follow standard routes. Still, you can get a good idea of your flight path by creating its great circle route. For fun, I tracked one of the more unusual flights I took, between JFK International in New York City and Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan. My flight was a bit south of the great circle route because at the time, the Soviet Union still existed and they were known to shoot down foreign aircraft that wandered into their air space. In addition, not all aircraft are certified to fly above the Arctic Circle. The great circle route for this flight though would scrape the top of the Bering Sea and pass over Vladivostok. Sadly, I remember little but clouds approaching Japan, but I only had the vaguest idea of where I was. In nearly fourteen hours in the air I looked down at a lot of frozen tundra while the sun hung largely in the same position in the west. It was disorienting, weird and wonderful, almost like being in outer space.

The GPS Visualizer site does lot of other neat geographic tricks. You can create a great circle map between any two points if you want, not just airports. You can type in two addresses and it will tell you the exact distance between them and give you an exact compass heading should you want to hoof it. It will draw elevation maps between two points. You can draw rings around a point at given distances. You can see the results in Google Earth by downloading the .kmz file it creates. You can also see it in Google Maps or get it in SVG, PNG and JPEG formats.

One thing I am discovering it that despite having over six billion people on the planet, most of our planet’s landmass is thinly populated. Last night as an experiment, I used the GPS Visualizer to draw lines exactly north and south of my house going ten thousand miles. I got the coordinates of my house out of Google Earth. I was curious who might be living one hundred, one thousand or five thousand miles due north or south from my house.

The answer: hardly anyone, except in the United States and even then, not that much. Five hundred miles south of my house is a point that looks like it is in the Bermuda triangle. At my longitude, the line cuts through Panama, but not through any populated places. It tracks through the Andes Mountains then disappears into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I then tracked it north. It came close to Rochester, then traveled over forests in Ontario, out into the tundra, over the pole, over Russia and Mongolia and did not hit anything resembling civilization until it reached Thailand. Even so, I hit no major cities.

Ideally, Google would put all these features into Google Earth. Perhaps some day they will because as good as the GPS Visualizer site is, it is just one guy having fun so it is a bit awkward to use at times. Still, to a man fascinated by maps like me its power combined with Google Earth give me a neat way to geek out. Try it out sometime. You may end up like me finding it oddly entertaining.

The view from the street

The Thinker by Rodin

In the mood for some nostalgia but do not actually have the money to see your old haunts? This used to be a problem but in many cases, it is not true anymore. While not exactly new news, until recently I was not that aware of Google Earth Street Views. More specifically, I was not aware how much fun they could be.

Way back in the dark ages of 2005 I discovered Google Earth. Back then it was the latest and most impressive tool from the wizards at Google, allowing you to see amazing imagery of our planet. The user interface was so slick and it seemed to know the location of pretty much everything. Now nearly four years old, Google Earth, along with its companion web-based product Google Maps feel very institutionalized. I wonder how we ever got anywhere without it.

Since then, Google kept adding features to Google Earth. You can see the stars in Google Earth, as well as Mars, the Moon and, most recently, underwater features of our planet. In addition, many new layers allow you to see relevant sets of features on our planet. Street views are a new layer that you can toggle on and off within Google Earth. You may have to upgrade Google Earth to find it and enable it. If you do, you may find your appetite for nostalgia has increased dramatically.

Street views, as the name implies, shows you the view from the street, not the view from a satellite or highflying aircraft. Street views require a lot of photography. While you can submit your own photos and they might appear in Google Earth, street views are more systematic. Apparently, Google has deep enough pockets to send out cars to traverse the nations’ highways and byways. On top of the car is a camera which every ten feet or so takes a 360 degree picture of whatever it sees. While Google is a long way from having street views of every street in the United States, it is making steady progress.

My neighborhood in Northern Virginia has yet to be photographed, but neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway, as well as much of suburban Maryland are already available. To see street views first you have to enable the layer, and then you have to zoom in close enough to see the icons that appear on the screen. If street views are available, you will see more icons as you zoom in. If you zoom in on a street, you can see icons representing pictures every ten feet or so, indicating the exact location where the picture was taken. They appear as a little globe on the street. Double-click on the icon of interest and the scene smoothly changes to a street view. Then simply use your mouse to change direction, zoom in or zoom out.

In many cases, the street views leave a lot to be desired. The cameras appear to be programmed to take more detailed pictures near major intersections. You will find rather low-resolution snapshots in many street views. The photos may be low resolution but they are available any time of the day or night for free on your PC.

Google has yet to provide street views of Endwell, New York, the town where I spent my formative years. While I wait for them to get around to this backwater part of New York State, there are plenty of other street views that I can enjoy. In 1972, my family moved from Endwell to Ormond Beach, Florida. One of my first major finds was a street view of our old house on Capri Drive. More than thirty-five years have passed since I lived on the street, and it is showing its age. Our old house does not look as well maintained today as it did when we lived there. Our garage is gone and is replaced by what looks like it may be a home office. There is also a rather ugly picket fence around the house. The chain link fence I remember was more inviting. Still, it is amazing that I can see it at all. From the air, you look at the roofs of houses. This limitation goes away with street views.

The old Winn Dixie where I wiled away many hours is gone too, but the building still stands. The imagery is not good enough to show what replaced it, but whatever class of retail inhabits the place today it looks like a step down. The imagery of Belair Plaza in Daytona Beach, site of the first Winn Dixie where I worked, is much better but if the store is still there, it is hidden behind the trees. Just up the street, the Red Lobster where my brother Mike spent late evenings up to his elbows doing dishes still seems to be doing business.

Google has also been down the street in Scotia, New York where I spent my earliest years. I had to go to the pictures I took in 2005 to find our old house with any accuracy, since my memory was so hazy. The years have not been kind to North Holmes Street. When we lived in our house, we had a painter next door. The house next door could use one now, along with carpenters to replace it siding. It looks like it should be condemned. Nonetheless, the current occupants of our house must be patriotic because an American flag flies on their porch.

Nostalgia is an obvious use for street views, but it is also a great traveling tool. If you need to stay at a hotel in a city, you cannot only find it, but you can look around and see what the block looks like. In many cases, you can make out neighboring businesses. You can also create virtual vacations. Want to visit Paris? There are thousands of street views that you can enjoy, most with excellent definition. (People’s faces seem to be fuzzed out; I assume this is some sort of privacy requirement by the government of France.) I found a street view of our hotel in Paris with little effort and could even traverse its side street and read the window of the Pizza Hut where we ate.

Street views thus serve a number of purposes. To me they help cement in my mind just how amazingly big and complex our planet actually is. In the years ahead, I look forward to spending many hours traversing streets both known and unknown.