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June 3rd, 2014
How might NGA’s immersive mission impact mainstream geospatial technology?

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At the recent International Space Symposium, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Letitia Long, set forth the mapping agency’s mission to move beyond integration and toward immersion through next-generation mapping and location technologies. This bold future direction is being made in an austere budget environment where programs that don’t meet this mission will lose funding.

This all-in on immersion requires some explanation in terms of how this path differs from the traditional geospatial data collection and visualization tools and approaches. With such an emphasis on immersion, there will be opportunities and impacts for how the professional geospatial marketplace will evolve. For one, immersion places a much greater emphasis on seamless mobile access of integrated intelligence, which means better software and hardware performance, and a hands-free and heads-up form factor.

Beyond Integration

This mission comes at a time when the inputs from satellites and other sensors are exploding. The job has been the integration or fusion of these various sources of information into actionable intelligence. Now that the key visionary concept is immersion, this prior emphasis doesn’t go away because it’s the foundation for this next phase. However, the information needs to get much more personal and predictive.

The military has gotten much better at delivering real-time information to soldiers about their environments, through the use of drones and the systems to communicate situational awareness. The systems are able to show soldiers people and objects around corners and over hills, but it’s another step to quantify an individual’s threat level in real time or to help soldiers to understand the underlying social structures in villages while they’re out on patrol.

All About Context

The NGA speaks about “geospace” as the combination of things happening in both time and place, and the unique insight that can be gained by knowing the geospace in context with other information. As the location and context comes together with analysis and data, there is greater clarity, and other intelligence agencies rely upon the NGA to provide this important filter. The key to gaining an immersion from this insight is to integrate this information more quickly, along with such new inputs as social media, to provide a more meaningful and personal context.

Some of the keys to greater context include persistence of surveillance to understand change over time as well as quicker conflation of all the various data sources in order to add to the insight. Tools to make sense of change will be useful to all disciplines that make use of geospatial technology today, and the idea of persistence means that we can all apply temporal analysis to aid in our understanding. Long spoke of platforms, sensors and systems that can tip and cue each other in an automated fashion, and to alert analysts in real time when there is a change that deserves further analysis. Persistence, coupled with automation that truly makes a system of systems, is a goal that we’re all after.

Achieving Augmentation

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been hard at work with partner organizations on augmented reality software and hardware for the heads-up display of information. The ARC4 software system is an example of the realization of this capacity, with the fusion of inputs from a sensor module made of cameras, satellite information, and head tracking technology in a display that can be overlaid onto someone’s field of vision.

This capacity has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, thanks largely to the miniaturization of sensors and computing power from the mobile phone market. While the project has benefitted from hardware advancements, it’s the software that has led the charge in terms of capacity to provide information within the context of our vision. There’s much more work to be done for hardware displays to catch up to what the software is capable of, and that’s a refreshing change considering that for so long it’s the software that has had to catch up  to the capabilities of our hardware.

The NGA’s goal of immersion is a technological stretch that builds upon a groundwork of incredible advancement. To “live, interact and experiment with the data” about our location is what most GIS analysts do on a daily basis, but this is a skill that is learned over a great deal of time. What NGA speaks to is a means to gain greater insights over time, but also to instantly understand what’s not right with a situation so that action can be taken to reduce harm or mitigate impacts. This next phase of immersion is something that we can all benefit from, and the fact that NGA is all-in on this mission means that it will come to us all much sooner than expected.

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