Young people get it. They know where we are heading, and they are excited about what’s on the horizon. I’m not talking about the future in general. I’m actually talking about geospatial technology specifically. Kids intuitively understand the potential for geospatial technology as well as any expert in our industry with 20 or 30 or more years of experience under their belt—and that’s a very good thing.
I know this first-hand because I recently had the pleasure of giving a presentation to a group of high school-age kids who attended Houston’s annual GIS Day event, which celebrates the importance of geospatial technology and puts a spotlight on the strong community of companies in Houston. A major focus of the event is to give young people the opportunity to learn about geospatial technology, how it is used, and what kind of careers exist in our industry. High-schoolers from around Houston participated in the event, and I was invited to give a group of these young people an introduction to geospatial technology and what the future holds for this technology. I was there to teach them, but I ended up coming away from the event feeling like I was the one who had learned the most.
My presentation gave them an overview of the evolution of geospatial technology up until the present day; then it looked ahead to the future. I was concerned I would lose them, after all, geospatial technology is a pretty technical subject and I’ve been at enough industry conferences to know how quickly presentations can start to fly over the heads of attendees. But you know what? The more I talked, the more nodding I saw. The further I peered into the future with my predictions and talked about the “science of where” and the 3D revolution of geoimaging, the clearer it became that they didn’t think I was talking science fiction. They see that future as clearly as any of us experts in the geospatial industry.
These are young people who have grown up with digital technology- mainly video games that now make “reality”, virtual or augmented into the 3D domain. They don’t know a time when there weren’t computers in every home. Most of them are too young to remember when phones didn’t have quasi-3D mapping apps to help you find the nearest Starbucks. The video games they have always played have never not been immersive, realistic 3D worlds rather than two-dimensional games where you smack a pixel back and forth or fire up at aliens who only know how to move left and right. Dumb aliens!
That’s why I am more convinced than ever that a revolution in the adoption of 3D geospatial technology is not just in our future, but in our very near future. Over the last 10-15 years, we have made huge progress from flat geoimagery, to 2½ dimensions (like imagery in GoogleMaps), to true 3D geospatial data that will change the way we see and interact and manage our world. The kids in that room see that as clearly as I do, and that’s why it will happen even faster than most people in our industry are expecting.
If you can bear with me for a philosophical thought: For centuries, cartographers created maps that were 2D documents on paper, but what they were really doing is using their skills and imagination to create a 3D vision of the world that allowed people to navigate their way through it. They were limited by the tools they had at hand (pen and paper) but if you could get inside their head, I guarantee that you would see a 3D world that visualized the real world in an immersive way. They were visionaries in the best sense of the word. They could see the world in ways other people could not, and the way they envisioned the world dramatically changed the course of history and the way we all live today.
The geospatial industry today falls firmly in the tradition of those cartographers because we are bringing to fruition a 3D representation of the world that used to only be possible inside people’s imagination (or a really cool video game). Many people think that 3D revolution has already happened, but they are only half correct—two and a half correct, actually. They see the cool looking aerial pictures on GoogleEarth or GoogleMaps with cityscapes where the buildings have depth and dimensionality to them, and they say, “Cool 3D.”
But those aren’t true 3D. Those images are interactive to a degree with mapping features that people can use to approximate what it is like to walk or drive through certain areas of a given city. I’m not denying that that’s pretty neat, but the reality is that that is not 3D geospatial data. At best it is two and a half dimensions. True 3D—which is being made possible by the newest generation of sensor system solutions, which take advantage of digitization, miniaturization and integration with other technologies—is a major leap beyond those neat-looking Apple and Google maps. It provides a fully immersive analysis of the surface of the earth and everything on it—even the interior of buildings—providing users with tremendous depth of information that can be used for a mind-boggling range of activities that improve the quality of life for people.
One of the topics I discussed in depth with the young people at the Houston GIS Day event was the future of city planning using true 3D geospatial data. We talked about how cities could analyze very precisely how new developments would impact a region’s carbon footprint. We talked about how this kind of 3D modeling would change the way real estate is bought and sold. We talked about how this imagery could be used to manage maintenance of schools and public buildings more efficiently. We talked about the impact on firefighter’s ability to save people from fires and the police’s ability to provide better services to often-neglected neighborhoods. We talked about how this data would link to exciting consumer technologies like GoogleGlass and next-generation smart phones. We talked about how it could be used to fight poverty, stop the spread of infectious disease, identify polluters, and a lot more. They came up with ideas of their own, and I told them to hurry up and bring to market before someone else did.
The more I shared, the more the kids nodded. The 3D revolution was a no-brainer for them. Of course, geospatial technology should do this. Their questions weren’t about why we should do those things or even how geospatial data would make it possible. Their main question was: How fast can we get there? The answer is simple: Much faster than any of us expect, not just with the next generation of technology that is coming to market but also with the next generation of young people who can see this, can see all of this, as clearly as a high-res aerial image on a haze-free day.