August 18, 2002

Local software maker puts the world at your fingertips

GeoFusion's 3-D imaging tools offer a virtual trip around the Earth

By MICHAEL DE GIVE
Sentinel STAFF WRITER
 
 

FREEDOM — You’re sitting in your spaceship, 50,000 miles from Earth, and decide you’d better get yourbearings. So you set down your zero-gravity coffee mug, twirl the mouse around the pad and watch the planet spin until the Americas roll onto your screen.

Click. You bust through a cloud layer and begin a descent toward the northern continent.

Click again, a slight course correction, and you’re homing in on a crescent-shaped bay on the West Coast.

Zoom closer, and the Monterey Bay grows to fill your screen. You see a town north of the river.

Click. Zoom.

A clock tower. Clumpy dots ... are those people? Holding protest signs?

Must be Santa Cruz.

Now take away the spaceship. What you’ve got left is computer software powered by GeoMatrix, a programming tool designed by a Santa Cruz County company called GeoFusion.

With it, digital mapmakers can create a 3-D world view that lets users zoom in to a spot on the globe like a bird returning to its nest. While the terrain constantly changes as more features come into view, there’s no lurching or halting as the computer calls up new imagery. It’s a smooth, uninterrupted flight.



Two views of the Lake Tahoe basin show GeoFusion's software at work. As the image zooms closer, the computer seamlessly accesses new iamgery and elevation data at higher resolutions. Squiggly lines grow into three-dimensional mountains. This layering of data is called a 'pyramid of resolution.'

 
 

"This is the first time people can navigate massive amounts of data on a PC-level machine," said Chuck Stein, co-founder of the company headquartered in the hills above Larkin Valley Road.

"This is the kind of thing that used to be top secret — only if you were sitting in Langley could you see things like this," said his business partner, Paul Hansen.

If digitally cruising over Earth’s terrain seems a bit like spying from a CIA situation room in Langley, Va., you’re getting the picture. Hansen and Stein believe national defense and homeland security are natural applications for their software.

But they also see its potential in education, agriculture, real estate, land-use planning, ecology and other fields. Marine biologists could use the software to plot ocean temperatures or track migrating whales, Stein said. Transportation authorities can monitor freeway traffic or flight patterns. Scientists can gauge global warming, population density or seismic activity.

"We tell people that anyone who has anything to do with the Earth is a potential customer," Hansen said.

Stein and Hansen met in the 1980s when they were graduate students at UC Santa Cruz’s Computer and Information Science Department. Hansen went on to work for Silicon Graphics. Stein worked nine years as a consultant at the Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, providing environmental data management for weather-prediction researchers. He also worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other environmental organizations.

Hansen began developing GeoFusion technology nearly four years ago. GeoFusion was incorporated in June 2001. In March, the company closed its first licensing agreement — with an industry leader in geographic information system software called the Environmental Systems Resource Institute.

Based in the Southern California city of Redlands, Environmental Systems Resource Institute will integrate GeoMatrix technology into its ArcGIS line of software. With it, Environmental Systems’ geographic databases that plot individual parts of the world can be mapped onto a 3-D digital Earth and explored from a global perspective.

The GeoMatrix Toolkit can be used to display terrain from a variety of sources, from satellite photos to U.S. Geological Survey data to crude maps drawn by early explorers.

That’s one of the reasons the software works quickly, Hansen said. Instead of storing and retrieving myriad Earth images, the GeoMatrix Toolkit creates valleys and peninsulas and ocean basins on the fly, using whatever data it is fed.

It also allows GeoFusion to license its software to programmers and companies who have their own data to plot. One "flight" can use sets of data from several sources.

As the camera lens zooms closer to the planet, the computer accesses new terrain and elevation data at higher resolutions. Squiggly lines on the globe grow into three-dimensional mountains. Closer still, and you’re no longer looking down on mountains, but looking up at their peaks from a vantage point that’s down in a valley. Hansen calls this layering of data a "pyramid of resolution." To the user, the switch from one set of data to another is seamless. If the data’s good enough, you can even see cars and people-like blobs on city streets.

With other commands, oceans are peeled away to reveal the rifts and canyons below; or the ground dissolves to show a network of grids and points that define the terrain.

There are no limits to the amount of data that can be added to the system, Hansen said.

GeoMatrix is designed as a software module, to be integrated with existing applications by programmers.

Stein and Hansen hope to make GeoMatrix the premiere tool in 3-D mapmaking. The sale to Environmental Systems Resource Institute was a significant step for the self-funded startup.

"They’re our first sale. It puts us in the black for the first time," said Stein.

"For us, it’s like getting a round of venture funding. It allows us to go forward in a pretty responsible way," Hansen said.

Before making its pitch to Environmental Systems Resource Institute, Stein and Hansen sought mentors through the Lighthouse Venture Forum and the Central Coast Angel Network, two local networking and business development associations. They were surprised — and grateful — that local chief executives would take time to coach them in the arts of negotiating a business deal.

The company also sees off-world applications for its product, and already has created images of the moon and Mars. It has an upcoming appointment to show GeoMatrix to officials at NASA.

And if the actual solar system isn’t your thing, Stein and Hansen believe computer gamers will see the product’s potential for creating imaginary, virtual worlds. Until the price of spaceships comes down, this may be the next best thing.

 
  Contact Michael de Give

WHAT: GoeFusion Inc. develops software tools for creating 3-D visualizations of the Earth — from space to the streets.

FOUNDERS: The corporation is owned by Chuck Stein, Paul Hansen, and Alexander Matiyevsky.

WHERE: Santa Cruz County, CA. USA

FOUNDED: 2001.

WEB: http://www.geofusion.com/.

   
 
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