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When a picture builds a thousand words
Advanced information overlay technology has long been the preserve of futuristic film and TV fantasies. Here, Peter Warren, reveals how a pioneering California-based company is turning science fiction into hi-tech reality for the masses via its online data-fusion system – with huge implications for the way we view the world.

Ten years ago, the now defunct 3D company Silicon Graphics put together a 3D astral model of the Milky Way for the American Museum of Natural History.

Called the Digital Galaxy Project, the model allowed visitors to fly through our galaxy, marvelling at the sheer size and scale of the system to which our planet belongs, and of which it is such a tiny part.

One day each dot of light will become a mine of information

As one visitor took off from an Earth still immersed in the Bosnian conflict, he commented to Carter Emmart, the researcher taking him through the Horsehead Nebula, that the one thing that was amazing about the system was seeing so many unnamed planets, and wondering when names and information would be supplied about them.

Emmart replied that the process of digitally pinning information against an object would first take place on Earth. This would be the beginning of an enormous and constantly changing encyclopedia that would eventually start to spill out into the stars, gradually tabbing data against the dots and giving them meaning. But he warned with endearing understatement: ‘Just finding out what a planet or a star is will be a massive task.’

Fast forward to 2009. The information overlay technology that was first introduced to us in the futuristic TV series Six Million Dollar Man, and then refined in sci-fi blockbusters like The Terminator – which based their research on techniques developed by NASA and the like – is now forcing its way into the real-estate market. It’s still in its early stages – you may not see a data readout on your eyeball just yet – but by simply clicking on a building on a map, a data screen can now drop down and reveal huge amounts of information on a particular location – almost instantaneously.

One system developed in El Segundo by Geosemble – a California-based company that up till now has concentrated on supplying its artificial intelligence and geospatial data-fusion systems to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, the US Air Force and other US government agencies including the CIA – can now pull together all the available data on a locality.

Within the last two years, the company has started to see real opportunities open up in the property market. ‘We have started to do work for cities that are undergoing redevelopment, who want to attract certain sorts of companies into an area,’ says CEO Andre Doumitt.

Drilling data on people and businesses from the marks on a map

‘Up till now, you look on Google Earth and all you can see is rooftops. What we do is let you click on that rooftop and see who is in that building, and who are in the buildings around you, so that you can really get an idea of a neighborhood. We can deliver a lot of information.’

A data rich Geosemble picture of a nuclear power plant in Iran

Just how much information is impressive. Go to one of Geosemble’s projects, the El Segundo website (www.elsegundobusiness.com), and you can home in on a particular area. By clicking on a roof you can drill down, uncovering information on the businesses you might be rubbing shoulders with, and all the restaurants, theatres and entertainment centers in the area.

The system depends on the ability of Geosemble’s technology to accurately overlay geospatial information on top of map data to achieve an absolute match between the two. When this is done, the system can then input information obtained from the web and other data sources to pinpoint a building and identify it.

“Soon an image will be considered an entry point into a real world”

This then allows the company to add other information gathered from the internet to a building’s data model. Precise data about what the companies in a block are doing, number of employees, recent news, etc, can then be displayed on a data readout.

So sophisticated is the system that it can also pull in information from social networking sites to present an even richer data picture. In the case of restaurants, you can even pull up menus if that information has been made available.

Geosemble’s business model is simple. The internet is changing, broadening and deepening; whereas once we expected a picture to be just that, now we want more information about what we are looking at than just a newspaper caption.

In the future, an image will be considered merely the entry point to somewhere in the real world.

This process is now gathering pace. With Google mapping streets in 3D, companies building interiors in 3D, and shopping centers and high streets developing websites about their services, a complex overlay of pictures and data is developing that mobile phone companies are now exploiting so as to be able to tell you where you are in that world, and what is around you.

‘If that information is open source or in the public domain, then we can display it. We can take geographic context and with our data-search techniques link that and other information to pinpoint content onto a particular location. In the old days, you would have to gumshoe it. Now, all you have to do is click on an image and you see a whole bunch of other information,’ says Doumitt. ‘A while ago, you would buy a computer that said ‘Intel inside’: well, now we’re the data inside when you tap on an image.’

Researching an area in seconds

This means that Geosemble can cut down on the time needed to research an area by presenting planning applications and development plans for an area alongside social and business information.

‘I see this as removing a lot of the fear that is involved in moving into an area,’ says Doumitt. ‘If you are looking to move into an area, it’s a bit awkward to go around and talk to people and ask them about what the area is like and what that gloomy-looking building is across the street. With this technology, you can determine if you want to make an investment decision very quickly.

‘For people investing in a home, that’s a big deal: they tend to only make those decisions three or four times in their lives. If it’s something like a business, then it can be crucial in being able to attract high-calibre staff.’

Costing around $10,000 to set-up for a small city, and with an annual maintenance fee of $2,000, Doumitt underlines the point made by Emmart 10 years ago about the model for the universe.

‘What can be accomplished all depends on the depth of the information and the frequency with which it is updated. We have got to the stage now with the internet when we are beginning to expect more and more from our images – we are aiming to be the data behind those images.’

• Geosemble Technologies provides automatic techniques for integrating and displaying geospatial information, including maps, aerial imagery, news, events, databases, businesses and more. For more information please visit: www.geosemble.com