Category Archives: 3D Modeling News

The Story Behind Google Earth’s New 3D Cities

I am really impressed with the new 3D imagery on Google Earth. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Rome, Portland, Seattle, Avignon, Munich and many more. I got to wondering how on (Google) earth they were doing this. There is no way that someone was sitting at a computer and making individual models of tens of thousands of buildings and trees – 3D models of entire large cities. And in fact they do have a new way of making these city models – automatically.

Previously, if Google wanted to create a 3D model of a city, they had to individually model each building in a program called Google Sketchup, a very simple 3d modeling program. Someone had to painstakingly make the model, then find photographs of the outside of the building and map them onto the sides so it looked like the real building. It was massively time consuming, so Google crowdsourced the job, enlisting thousands of people all over the world to do it, many just hobbyists. The results were spotty and inconsistent. Some looked realistic, others were cartoony. The lighting was uneven. Placement of the buildings was often inaccurate, and not all buildings were modeled – often there were just a few buildings popping up in the middle of an otherwise flat city.

Now they’ve announced a new technique for creating 3D city models, called stereophotogrammetry. They now have, believe it or not, a fleet of planes that fly over cities, sort of like a flying version of their street view cars! Cameras are mounted on the planes that shoot high-resolution images at 45 degree angles, from directly overhead, and from multiple directions. The stereophotogrammetry process then automatically compares the various aerial photos to calculate the geometry of the buildings and trees and landmarks and create a textured 3D mesh of the entire city, including not only the buildings, but also trees, plants and even cars and trucks!

The result is a remarkably accurate 3D model of the entire city and its surrounding area, complete with accurate photographic textures. All of the buildings and structures are accurately placed, and the quality, lighting and shadows are consistent over the entire model. And because it’s automatic, it can be rapidly rolled out to cover large areas. Google’s Peter Birch expects this new technology to cover “communities of over 300 million people” by the end of the year.

Here is a gallery of some of these amazing images. But explore these cities yourself, you will be amazed.

AvignonMannheimMunichRancho Palos VerdesRomeRomeSan FranciscoSeal RocksSeattleWilshire Blvd.

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My Love Affair with 3D – How it All Began

tru-vue viewer with boxMy fascination with 3D started when I was about ten years old. My parents bought “us kids” a Tru-Vue stereoscopic viewer. If memory serves (which it occasionally does), it was this one (at right), a model number 502. It was the kind that had no internal illumination, you had to hold it up to the light. It took rectangular cards, like the one shown below, rather than the discs used by the ViewMaster. You advanced through the pictures by pressing the red lever. Each of the cards came in its own envelope, and as you can see in the picture, cost 49 cents! In 1957 the Tru-Vue viewer cost about $2.00.

tru-vue slide cardTo give a bit of history, the Tru-Vue company was founded in 1931, and grew and flourished through the 1930’s and 40’s. The original viewers were created as a “modern” update of the 19th Century stereoscopes, and were designed in the “streamline moderne” style. They used 35mm filmstrips, generally containing 14 stereo views, which were pulled through the viewer using a lever. By 1939, they were selling over a million reels of film. In 1950, they introduced their first color films, to compete with their main rival, View-Master, made by Oregon-based Sawyer’s Photo Services. The View-Master had been introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, originally intended as an alternative to the scenic postcard. The main subjects of View-Master reels were popular tourist locations like Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon.In 1951, Tru-Vue was purchased by Sawyer’s. In addition to eliminating their main rival, the takeover also gave Sawyer Tru-Vue’s licensing rights to use Disney characters.

Tru-Vue Donald Duck sceneTru-Vue Lady and the Tramp chase sceneThat’s where I came in. I didn’t care much for the “scenic” views. They looked kind of flat and unreal. But I loved the Disney scenes with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Lady and the Tramp. I liked the characters, sure, but what really caught my imagination were the ingenious cartoon sets they appeared in, the cartoon streets, cafés, houses, shops, back alleys.

Tru-Vue Lady and the Tramp dinner sceneTru-Vue Lady and the Tramp alley sceneBefore computers, before CGI and computer games and 3D Studio Max, this was my virtual world. Of course, analytically I knew these were models made by Disney artists, but in my imagination, the streets went on and on. I imagined walking down that cartoon street, turning that corner, and discovering a whole new scene. Disney artists had supplied the Tru-Vue scene, my imagination took off from there.

And I realized that, yeah, you can pretty much create anything you want. Whatever you can imagine, you can create. And once you’ve created your own 3D street, maybe someone else can walk down it and turn that corner…

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