In the early 1990s, a number of projects began to deal with massive amounts of geospatial data. It was investigated how end users in future super-fast networks can interact with this amount of data on the screen, be it as a virtual wanderer or as a general on an interactive battlefield. An artistically outstanding interface system was created by designers and hackers with “Terravision” in Berlin. It allowed zooming down on Earth to a resolution of 30 meters. On Thursday the drama “The Billion Dollar Code” starts on Netflix, which deals with the history of Terravision.
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The four-part Netflix season tells the story the company Art + Com, founded by CCC hackers and art students, which works for the Berlin high-speed network BERKOM on behalf of Deutsche Telekom the multimedia installation Terravision developed. Here the globe is practically an oversized trackball. A kind of tablet hovers over him and allows the exploration of the earth. Onyx high-performance computers from Silicon made it possible to zoom into various representations of the earth’s surface.
When Google Earth started later in 2001, the Berliners, who had long been involved in other projects, were amazed at the similarity. In particular, the Earth Viewer from a company called Keyhole, used by Google, caused a stir internationally when the television station CNN used the view of the earth to illustrate the 2003 Iraq war. In 2014 it was decided to sue Google as the Art + Com Innovation Pool (ACI) because, unlike Germany, they had received a patent for virtual earth exploration in the USA.
In the application it was pointed out that engineers and programmers were employed by the hardware partner at the time, Silicon Graphics, and that they were later bought up by Google through the company Keyhole and looked after the Google Earth project. In doing so, they should have infringed ACI’s US patents. That lawsuit was crashingly lost in March 2017 because Google launched the one for the US military in 1991 MAGIC project (Multidimensional Applications and Gigabit Internet Consortium) on a sub-project called TerraVision in which the military could zoom into 3D representations of the Californian military base Fort Irwin up to a meter. Although only an area of 40 × 30 kilometers had been photographed and mapped, it was extremely accurate.
In addition, Google presented Stephen Q. Lau, one of the programmers, who testified that he had demonstrated this version of TerraVision at Siggraph 1995 and explained the code of the application to two Art + Com employees. Lau had already helped the predecessor company Keyhole, throwing off a patent lawsuit. The Germans’ lawsuit was accordingly Unanimously dismissed by US judges. Later did Myths on the process round.
The screenwriter Oliver Ziegenbalg and director Robert Thalheim have now crafted a fictional drama from the myths and the material of the court files. Many of the employees involved at the time were merged into the two main characters Carsten Schlüter and Juri Müller, which is a bit painful when you consider the outstanding work of the recently deceased designer Joachim Sauter knows. In his retrospective he listed the fellow campaigners of the Terravision project. In places, the drama is involuntarily funny when a nerd slams a phone book on the table and the Telekom employees involved are amazed at his statement that something like this is no longer needed.
A fact checker could have looked at what was really going on back then when Topware brought its D-Info CDs onto the market – followed by the D-Sat CDs with recordings from the Russian Cosmos satellite, which were sold in 1996 for a mere 49.50 DM were distributed. They only offered a resolution of 10 meters and were thus far below the results from TerraVision, but were suitable for home use without a mains connection. Because the necessary fast internet came later. How did a reviewer write on the occasion of the version offered by Art + Com to explore the Expo 2000 in Hanover? “But this tour also requires a fast connection to the Internet. With my ISDN connection, I had the impression that even I would be faster on foot.”
Neal Stephenson first described the virtual earth as a data interface in 1992 in his science fiction novel “Snow Crash”. Independently of this, the research and design office Art + Com has been working on the implementation of an interactive, three-dimensional visualization of the earth in real time with continuous zoom from space down to street level since 1993. Art + Com presented the project called Terravision to the general public for the first time at the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) conference in Kyoto at the end of 1994, and Terravision was used in Germany to present the future urban planning of Berlin.
The hardware requirements were enormous: In order to enjoy this pleasure, a reality engine from SGI worth 300,000 DM was required. After the system was shown at Siggraph in 1995, SGI took on an installation at their demonstration center in Mountain View – the building where Google now resides. Terravision was implemented in Performer, an SGI graphics library, and must have piqued the interest of the then director and chief developer of the department responsible for SGI’s graphics libraries. A few years later Michael T. Jones founded the company Keyhole, which developed the technology and application, which in turn Google bought in 2004 and renamed Google Earth.
The circumstances that led to the development of Terravision are interesting. In search of the most demanding, bandwidth-hungry applications for their high-speed network VBN in Berlin, the former Deutsche Post approached Art + Com with its department for new projects (BERKOM). After their initial implementation, there were further attempts to develop comparable systems. Stanford Research Laboratories (SRI) presented a derivative of the DARPA-funded “Digital Earth” project. This system, also called Terravision, was written in Tcl / Tk and GeoVRML, a VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) extended by geo-coordinates. SRI Terravision has been available for Windows and Unix platforms – even in source code – since the late 1990s. The website contains collections of terrain models, maps and aerial photographs. Since 2001 the development has apparently stopped. The last update date is 2002 and some of the servers listed can no longer be contacted. (from: IX 12/2005 on the history of planet browsing (author: Christian Wilk))