November 13, 2013
Over the past few years, Adam Metallo, Vince Rossi and other members of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office have used 3D scanning to solve a century-old murder mystery, preserve a millennia-old fossil whale site threatened by highway construction in Chile and digitally capture every nook and cranny of Abraham Lincoln’s face, as represented in a plaster mask made just before his death, among other feats.
Now, they’re bringing together dozens of the world’s leading experts on 3D scanning and printing at the Smithsonian X 3D Conference. The event, held today and tomorrow at the Freer-Sackler Meyer Auditorium and simulcast above, is a celebration of the digitization work that’s occurred so far and a discussion of how such technology will transform the Smithsonian Institution—as well as the state of science, museums and education as a whole—going forward.
One of the event’s biggest announcements is the beta release of the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer—a web-based interface that allows users to explore, share and print 3D models of dozens of the Smithsonian’s most remarkable artifacts, with more to follow over the coming years. This technology will allow for all sorts of new uses of historical artifacts and scientific specimens: Researchers can share items with colleagues for analysis, teachers can use virtual objects in classroom lessons and members of the public can get unprecedented access to Smithsonian items, many of which aren’t on display due to space limitations.
The 3D data for the items shown in the Explorer will also be downloadable in full resolution, allowing anyone with a 3D printer to create replicas of these objects at any scale. As a demonstration, the Digitization Office will be creating a full-scale, 26-foot long 3D print of one of the fossil whales from Chile.
“I think 3D printing technology is a huge game changer, because you can actually replicate the three dimensional physicality of an artifact,” says Paul Debevec, a computer graphics pioneer who will be delivering a keynote at the event. “When you’re working on proposed reconstructions of what an ancient artifact might have looked like, for instance, you don’t have to actually mess with the original artifact—you can scan it without touching it, print out what you’ve got, and three different historians can come up with three different ideas how of the item may have once looked.”
The Digitization office is also pursuing plans to construct a state-of-the-art 3D scanning and printing lab at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on the Mall, currently under renovation. “We’re basically going to bring our lab to the public,” Vince Rossi says. “Like the fishbowl at the Natural History Museum—where staff work on fossils—we’re going to bring our 3D scanning efforts out into the public eye, so people can see what we’re working on.” Additionally, in the new space, they’ll make their high-end 3D scanning and printing equipment available for public use.
The conference will feature panels and keynote addresses from dozens of leaders in 3D technology, including Saul Griffith, the inventor and founder of Otherlab, and Ping Fu, the Chief Strategy Officer of 3D Systems. Together with Rossi, Metallo and other Smithsonian staff, they’ll examine how digitization will shape the future of the Smithsonian and grapple with the challenges of effectively digitizing and making publicly available millions of artifacts and specimens.
“For a museum curator, there are scary aspects to letting collections roam digitally on the internet,” Debevec says, “but it seems that Smithsonian curators understand the potential of all this, and I think they’re going to be on the forefront of making it happen.”
Watch the livestream above for coverage of the two-day conference.
The Wright Flyer, the legendary aircraft built by the Wright Brothers and sent skyward over Kitty Hawk in 1903, was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1948. Since then, it’s been on public display nearly continuously.
Of course, visitors aren’t allowed to touch the plane, and educators teaching lessons on the Flyer have had to use models to give students the chance to handle it and see it from different positions. Engineers and historians have faced similar limitations, unable to climb inside to examine its inner machinery or take out a tape measure to assess its specs.
Now, though, anyone with an internet connection can handle a virtual 3D version of the Flyer and print a replica at any scale. The 3D model viewer above, along with 20 other 3D models released today as part of the Digitization Program Office‘s Smithsonian X 3D Conference, is the result of years of labor by Vince Rossi, Adam Metallo and other staff in the Digitization Office. As they continue their work of digitally scanning as many of the Smithsonian’s 137 million artifacts as possible, the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer is the means by which they’ll take this valuable 3D data public.
“For a while, we were able to create these incredible, high-resolution 3D models, but in terms of public access to the data, we were really limited,” says Rossi. “In developing these tools, we’re able to share our work with the world.”
Each model is a simplified version of the “point cloud“—the thousands of points that make up the contours of an item’s surface—that they collect using 3D scanning tools. Because the actual point cloud is far too large in size to make available in a web browser, some digital compression is necessary.
“If you play any video game, you’re looking at a polygonal model, and that’s also what you’re looking at in the viewer,” Rossi says. In essence, the 3D contours of an object are flattened, forming thousands of polygons (mostly triangles) that represent the surface of the object. As polygons, these triangles can be represented in two dimensions—at which point colors, shading and textures are added to the object’s surface—then contorted back into a 3D shape that captures most of the visual detail of the original but has a file size small enough to load in a web browser.
The viewer allows users to explore these models in detail—rotating the items, isolating different components of them, measuring them with built-in tools and creating specific views that can be shared over social media or embedded on a website or blog post just like a video. It also makes it possible to take a virtual guided tour of the object (by clicking on the globe icon), with text, images and video that accompany a specific set of views and let users learn historical and scientific background. “The 3D explorer allows you to tell a story,” Rossi says. “Essentially, you can use the 3D model as a scaffolding to tell the history of an object.”
The Digitization Office staff see dozens of potential uses for these models: Teachers can use them as education tools, researchers can use them to analyze their own artifacts and share them with colleagues, and most of all, they’ll allow the public to more easily appreciate millions of Smithsonian objects, both on display and hidden away in archives. Once, plaster masks—such as the mask of Abraham Lincoln made shortly after his death, above—were the height of technology used to preserve the three-dimensional shape of a specimen or artifact. Now, digital capture of an item’s contours in three-dimensions can be done with lasers and computer software.
In addition to the compressed versions of these artifacts available in the viewers, the Digitization Office has also made the full-size 3D datasets available for downloading, which will let users use 3D printers to recreate the objects in full detail at any scale. Although 3D printing at home is still in its nascency, they’re becoming increasingly economical, with base models now available for a few hundred dollars. “We think the implications of this are pretty big,” Rossi says.
So far, the Digitization Office has scanned hundreds of objects. For the first batch of viewable items, they chose a sampling that represents all of the fields of inquiry the Smithsonian is involved in—art, history and science, conveyed with priceless artifacts, ancient specimens and, in the case of an orchid, actual living organisms.
This whale fossil, for instance, was scanned when dozens of seven million-year-old whale remains were discovered in Chile, in the path of imminent Pan-American Highway construction. To preserve the specimens in their geological context, Metallo, Rossi and others scanned them in 3D. “[Paeleontologist] Nick Pyenson is already planning on using these viewers to share information with researchers in Chile,” Rossi says. “So this site no longer exists in Chile, but anyone is still able to take measurements of it and use that data.”
Scanning has also been put to use as part of internal Smithsonian projects, such as the comprehensive scanning of Dinosaur Hall to document the position of all of the hall’s specimens before it closes next year for a ground-up renovation. As part of the project, the team scanned the wooly mammoth represented above.
“This was challenging not only because of the size, but also its complexity,” Rossi says. To capture the contours of every rib bone and tusk, he and Metallo had to position their scanners in more than 60 different vantage points, then carefully knit together the data sets to yield a complete animal.
They’ve gone small, too, with specimens such as the bee above, taken from the Smithsonian’s entomology collection. In order to capture details as small as the hairs on its abdomen, Metallo and Rossi used a micro CT scanner, which is similar to a medical CT scanner, but able to capture smaller objects at high resolution.
With their scanning technique practiced and a new means of sharing their data with the public, Rossi and Metallo’s plan going forward is to increase the scale of their operation. “The next step is going big—scanning hundreds or thousands of objects per year, instead of a few dozen,” Rossi says. It might not be possible to digitally capture all 137 million of the Smithsonian’s items, but they want to scan as many as they possibly can.
For the rest of the first batch of models—including digital versions of Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, a 550 A.D. intricately carved “Cosmic Buddha” sculpture and the remnants of a distant supernova—head over to the Smithsonian X 3D site. The conference is sold out, but is being simulcast online, and an associated showcase of 3D technology is open to the public.
August 29, 2013
In a first of its kind, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough has published a new e-book, entitled Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age. As a call to action, Clough charts the course that the Smithsonian will follow in the coming years in digitizing its artifacts, crowdsourcing its research and opening up its collections for public interpretation and consumption. “Today digital technology is pervasive, ” he writes, “its use, particularly by the world’s youth, is universal; its possibilities are vast; and everyone in our educational and cultural institutions is trying to figure out what to do with it all. It is mandatory that museums, libraries, and archives join with educational institutions in embracing it.”
We sat down with Secretary Clough to learn about his motivation for writing the book, the difficulties in digitizing 14 million objects and his favorite digitization projects so far.
What first got you interested in digitization and thinking about the Smithsonian’s involvement with it?
I’ve been involved with computing all my professional life. I tell people that when I went to Georgia Tech as an undergraduate, the first course I had was how to use a slide rule, and the last one was how to use a computer. I put the slide rule away, and became very involved with computing. My thesis, at Berkeley, in the 60s, used a CDC 6600 machine to simulate complex environments. This kind of technology revolutionized the way we could think about geology and engineering.
Later, in my life as a faculty member and an educator, I used computing throughout. At Duke, the first assignment they gave me was teaching a freshman course in computing, and I really had a ball doing it, so it’s been something I’ve been at for a long time. As an administrator, I always had people trying to sell me different technological tools that would revolutionize education. All the same, it wasn’t quite time yet. The tools weren’t robust enough, they were too balky, they couldn’t be scaled.
When I came to the Smithsonian, it was clear to me that there was a huge potential and that we were finally at a tipping point in terms of the tools that we could use. What was happening was that everyone had their own devices, and then apps came along, and offered huge possibilities. Social media came along. And now it’s changing so fast. Just a few years ago, we didn’t have social media, and now Smithsonian has 3.5 million people following us on social media.
In those early years, what we did was experiment. I said ‘let a thousand flowers bloom.’ So we put up a venture fund called the Smithsonian 2.0 fund. Then through the Gates Foundation, we established a $30 million endowment for reaching new audiences, so we let people compete for those funds. All of a sudden, people were coming up with great ideas, so we could see things happening, but we didn’t have an umbrella over it.
So that is the next step, and the book really is the thought process of how you put this together and make it work—keeping the innovative and creative spirit within it, not saying everything has to be the same, but at the same time lift all parts of the Smithsonian up in digitization. It’s not going to be workable for us to have two museums at the top of their fields in this area, and 16 not. So how do we move everybody up into the game? The opportunities are there for us to reach people everywhere, and to me, the timing is just perfect to implement these ideas.
What, in a nutshell, is your vision for the digital future of the Smithsonian? In 10, 20, or 30 years, what are going to be some of the key ways the Institution embraces digitization and uses it to give access to the public?
Looking down the road, we will see people engaged in the creative activities of the Institution. In the past, the creative activities were entirely behind the walls of museums and collection centers. The public only got to access that through labels in exhibitions, which told them what we thought. Now, in this new world, people actually will help us design exhibitions, and it will be interactive. We have a beta version of a volunteer site, for example, that has several hundred working with us on projects. Essentially, you put up tasks, and volunteers can choose which ones they want to do. They submit their credentials, then, say, transcribe a cursive journal. Fundamentally, they’re taking things that have never been seen before by the public and making them available.
There are also cases where people know more about certain artifacts than we do. We have lots of implements from Native American tribes, and they may know more about them than we do, and we’d love for them to tell us about those objects. People are going to be engaged with us in a conversation, not a monologue. We’re not the ‘Voice of God’ anymore.
It’ll also mean letting people share in our research. We have this thing called LeafSnap, an app that identifies tree species based on images of their leaves. And if you take a picture and tell us you did it, we know where you were, and we know what that tree is. So we’re now mapping tree ranges based on people’s reports of that information. In the future, that’ll be extremely valuable, because as global warming hits, ranges of trees will change. Up at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, we have the Colorful Cosmos project, where kids in a hundred museums are able to use their telescopes, and those kids are able to talk to Smithsonian scientists. That never would have happened before.
The other thing is that fundamentally, this is going to change the way our Institution works. We’re going to have to be a much more flexible and adaptable Institution, because maybe the greatest technology today may not be in the future. If we don’t shift and move, we’ll get left behind.
In the book, you also wrote that you want Smithsonian to digitize 14 million objects as a start. How do you prioritize which objects to make digitally available first?
It’s a good question, because even 14 million is too big. It’s better than 137 million, but it’s a huge number. When you think about digitizing a three-dimensional object, somebody has to go get it, they need to bring it somewhere where there’s sophisticated scanners, they need to scan it, and then they need to process it and then put it back. Think about doing that 14 million times. They estimate that would take 50 years, at best.
So that’s why you have to prioritize. There are a few elements in that. One is that we kind of have an understanding of what we think people would want, and we’re also asking people what they would want. So our art collections, for example, contain around 400,000 art objects. So we’ve asked our art people, and they told us 20,000 objects that are the best of the best. So we’re going to do high-resolution digitization of those objects.
Once you’ve identified these, there are robots that can produce the images. So they can do it relatively quickly. It’s a little gizmo, and it goes up to a painting on the wall, scans the thing, and then it’s finished. Then you put another painting on the wall, and it does that one.
Of the digitization projects the Smithsonian has done thus far, which are some of your favorites?
Well they’ve been at it for a few years now, and I’ve been fascinated by it. One of the first things they did was the Kennicott skull, which I keep on my desk and scare people with sometimes. I’ve also got a few other ones in my office—Lincoln’s death mask, and Owney, the postal dog. I’ve also got a 3D print of an instrument that will go up on a solar probe to measure the solar wind—it’ll go up in 2018, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory folks decided the best way to visualize it was to print it in plastic, so I’ve got that.
There’s also another story I really like. I went to a meeting with some of our people in the repatriation business—when a Native American tribe says, ‘we want this object back, and we can prove our ownership of it.’ Many of these objects are funerary items, so when the tribes get them back, they’ll bury them, and they’re gone from view. So our people have been saying to the tribes, ‘we’d love to make a three-dimensional copy of it,’ and with their permission, they’ve been making copies. They can paint the things, and they look exactly the same as the original objects. So in some cases, the tribes have seen the replicas, and said ‘wow, can you make some for us?’ Because they don’t want people handling the real deal, but want to have access to it. In some cases they’re even sending us their own objects, asking us to make copies.
To me, that’s where it’s all going. I just think it’s going to get cheaper, faster, quicker. It’ll take a while, but it makes things so accessible. You put the image or file on your iPad and can see the items, play with them. It really brings history alive.
With the book, you’re putting a statement out there that this sort of digitization is a priority for the Smithsonian. Why is it important that the Institution leads in this field?
When I came, people used to say ‘We’re the largest museum and science organization in the world.’ I’d say, ‘So what? We want to be the best.’
And if you want to be the best, that’s a big word. We’re one of the best in putting on exhibitions. We have the best collection of stamps, one of the best scientific collections. But you can’t be the best at your business if you walk away from anything this big. So if the Smithsonian wants to be a leader in museums, or astronomy, or whatever, it has to be a leader in the digital world.
The other thing is that this gives us a chance to deliver education to every person. And we can tailor the stories we tell based on the audience, and setting. And so suddenly, that “Voice of God” is no longer there. We can be much more considerate and thoughtful about what we provide. It’s very clear to me that we’re moving into a world where people want to customize the way they approach things. We provide teachers with lesson plans, for example, but they tell us that they just want to use them as a basic framework to put their own lessons in. We have a lesson plan on science in your backyard, but if you live in Tucson, it’d be a different story than the one you’d tell in Bellingham, Washington, where there’s tons of rain. So teachers want a framework, but they want to put their own substance in. So more and more, I think we’re going to be a facilitator.
The other thing is, once you start putting everything in the cloud, it all becomes a mixed bag. What’s the difference between the art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian when it’s in the cloud? People are going to be less concerned with where things come from. When they go to a museum, they’ve got to go to the Met or the Smithsonian. But when it’s in the cloud, they don’t really care. When they’re looking at a Winslow Homer painting in the cloud, they don’t care if it came from the Met or the Smithsonian—they’re just looking at a painting. So that’s going to change the way we do business and approach things. And I think, again, it’s a reason that it’s important for the Smithsonian to be a leader, so we can be controlling the options—at least understanding and appreciating and shaping the options—but if you’re not a leader, they’re going to shape you. People are looking to us to be a leader in this field.
When you put data about these artifacts in the cloud, how do you guard against technology becoming obsolete and losing access to this data?
We have a group working on this—they call it time-dependent materials. We have lots of objects in our collections that are subject to deterioration over time. The old film movies are a classic example of that, but there are lots of examples. Can you still read 8-track tapes? So we’ve got a group studying this, trying to figure out how to deal with it and ensure you have access in the future.
A good example of overcoming that sort of barrier, right now, is we have thousands of field journals that people made notes and illustrated with on hugely important expeditions. We have some of Charles Darwin’s notebooks. So in a way, that’s an obsolete medium, because few people can read it. But if you can digitize it, everyone can read it. So we have a volunteer transcription center to help transcribe cursive into a digital format.
You chose to publish these ideas in an e-book format. What do you think about the future of books and reading? Do you read on paper or e-books?
Well, when I got to the beach, I still like to have a real book. An iPad doesn’t work well out in the sun. But I’ve tried everything—iPads, Kindles, etc. Right now, it’s all about convenience, which is why I mostly use the iPad. If I’m sitting at the airport and realize I wanted to download a book, I can just download it right there. But I still like a real newspaper. The digital version doesn’t do as much for me. A real newspaper, you can flip back and forth, go back to earlier articles. But one thing I like about the iPad, I can go back and see what I read a few years ago. Sometimes I even go back and read the stuff I’ve finished over again years later.
Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age is available via a free PDF.
April 23, 2013
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on January 7, 2007, he said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that…changes everything….Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
The iPhone has proved even more revolutionary than Jobs understood, as its role in the remarkable capture of the Boston Marathon bombers illustrated. In the wake of the bombing, the FBI asked for crowdsourcing assistance to identify suspects. The digital sites Reddit and 4chan were instantly swamped by a “general cybervibe” of shared digital information sent from iPhones and video surveillance cameras. It was a stunning interaction between citizens and law enforcement.
This interaction is currently very high on the media radar screen. In the Washington Post, Craig Timberg recently wrote about the technologies that can produce “access to unprecedented troves of video imagery” and information about location data emitted by cellphones. In their recent book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Google executive chairman Jared Cohen and Google director of ideas Eric Schmidt describe how a camera will “zoom in on an individual’s eye, mouth and nose, and extract a ‘feature vector’” that creates a biometric signature. This signature is what law enforcement focused on following the Boston bombing, according to Schmidt and Cohen, in an excerpt from their book, published last week in the Wall Street Journal.
A media appeal from law enforcement is not new. John Walsh’s television program, “America’s Most Wanted,” is credited with capturing 1,149 fugitives between 1988 and 2011. But the stakes have sky-rocketed in the digital age, and the issue of unfiltered social media information has proved problematic. In the midst of the Boston manhunt, Alexis Madigal wrote for the Atlantic that the crowdsourcing flood revealed “well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight” of their rush to judgment: “This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline. . .”
In a story on April 20th, the Associated Press reported that “Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4chan, smartphones, and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detectives. . . . .” The problem of inevitable mistakes, the AP noted, illustrated the unintended consequences of law enforcement “deputizing the public for help.” Reddit is a giant message board divided into subsections similar to local newspapers, except that users are the content providers. In the Boston case, users viewed their assistance as “a citizen responsibility” and engulfed the digital sites with every possible piece of “evidence.”
On the PBS News Hour April 19th, Will Oremus of Slate said that Reddit is unmediated democracy in action—a site where everyone gets to vote on what rises to the top of the page as the headlined feature. The lack of a filter means mistakes will be made, but Oremus argued that the potential for good superseded the bad. He also suggested that the Boston experience, where innocent people were momentarily tagged as suspects, illustrated how complex the learning curve is going to be.
It has certainly been a learning curve for me. I was intending to write here about a fascinating new book, Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison, when I found myself scurrying around exploring “Reddit” and “4chan.” But as it happens, there are intriguing parallels between the advent of revolutionary technology a century ago and today’s media metamorphosis.
In the Gilded Age, Freeberg writes, society “witnessed mind-bending changes in communication. . .hardly imagined beforehand.” Their generation was the first “to live in a world shaped by perpetual invention,” and Edison personified the age with his contributions to the light bulb, the phonograph, and moving pictures.
As in the digital age today, the greatest impact then was not simply the invention itself but the invention’s consequences. There were no rules: For example, how should street lighting be constructed–should there be one giant arc light, or a series of lights lining the streets? Freeberg also explains how standards were developed for the use of electricity, and how professions evolved to implement those standards.
One of my favorite stories in The Age of Edison describes how electricity affected public behavior: people accustomed to lurching home from saloons in gaslight’s forgiving darkness were now exposed to public opprobrium by electricity’s illumination. Electricity, Freeberg suggests, was “a subtle form of social control.” Neighbors peering from behind curtains were the cultural antecedents of today’s surveillance cameras.
Like Steve Jobs did in the 21st century, Freeburg writes that “Edison invented a new style of invention.” But in both cases, what became important were the ramifications—the unintended consequences.
April 17, 2013
In recent years, we’ve gone from relying on bulky external GPS receivers to having digital maps of the world accessible at our fingertips. But what can we expect in the next few decades from the technology. Andrew Johnston, one of four curators for the new Air and Space Museum exhibit, “Time and Navigation,” says much of the change will likely come from the commercial and social media side of it. Meaning, soon your phone may be getting even smarter. He says, “All that will be invisible for most people. It’s become this sort of hidden utility that everybody uses but nobody really sees it, or understands quite how it works.”
We talked with him about the ubiquity of the technology, what it might look like in the future and whether we’re at risk of being overdependent.
What are some of the applications?
[GPS] was born as a military system and is still operated by the Air Force in coordination with civilian U.S. government agencies. So there’s lots of applications that are important for strategic directives with the country.
The first thing that people might be used to doing is accessing maps on their phones. That is something that depends on satellite positioning using GPS satellites.
These days, large shipping companies use satellite positing to determine where their trucks are. And you can keep track of all your vehicles from a central location, which is huge for enabling more efficient transportation.
There’s a story in the exhibition about precision agriculture. That’s a huge business now. Satellite positioning has revolutionized how large scale agriculture is taking place. Fertilizer is very expensive, the old way of doing things you would apply the same amount of fertilizer for a whole field. Whereas, now because the piece of farm equipment knows where it’s located and you have a map of the soils and previous season’s crops yields, as the vehicle drives over the field it can actually vary how much fertilizer goes down depending on those conditions.
A firefighter appears in the exhibition highlighting how satellite positioning allows vehicles to get to places faster because they know the routes and have the on-board mapping information. But it also points out some of the things that we can’t do yet, like indoor positioning.
Satellite positioning is also a timing system. It provides high precision time, like an atomic clock, except it’s distributed over large areas. That’s useful for running an electric grid. The way that electricity is transmitted over long distances, you have to time when surges of electricity move from point A to point B and that’s done with GPS timing. Even financial transactions need precise time. Transactions that happen very quickly need a precise time reference, which often comes from GPS.
What are some of the challenges, for example, indoor navigation?
Right now satellite positioning does not work indoors in most situations. Different solutions are being explored. For instance, you can determine your position pretty roughly by using cell phone towers. The phone knows where the towers are located and which towers it is using, so it can roughly determine its position. The level of error is lower when you’re using satellite positioning.
But let’s say you knew which were the closest WiFi hotspots and you knew the information about those spots, and you knew where they were located, you could use that to help you navigate as well, indoors and outside.
Map databases have to be globally consistent so you can move anywhere on the earth and still see the map data, but then they have to be up-to-date and that’s a huge amount of work. One of the ways that different groups are trying to address that is by collecting data and updates from people as they move around with their phones.
It may be possible for a phone to search for hotspots as it’s being carried around and then save this data to a central server. Then subsequent phones, if they’re tapped into the same database, will know the locations of WiFi hotspots.
The commercial aspect is interesting. Throughout the exhibit, there are moments where government funding and competition spurs innovation, is that still the way it is?
When it comes to these global navigation tools, in terms of the funding that makes these systems work, that is still mostly a government story. Systems like GPS, that’s government money that actually makes all that operate.
The thing that’s been going on recently is that there’s a lot of non-government money getting involved in utilizing these services and making derived products, and providing services to individuals all over the world. In other words, there’s this government system that is being run, but then there’s all of these different applications and a lot of the innovation for how to actually use the system is coming from the non-government side.
While the future of positioning technology in terms of social media is largely invisible, a visible example includes the promise of driverless cars, which Stanley represents in the exhibit. Anything else like that on the horizon?
The possibility of self-driving cars has the potential to transform everyday life. We’ve run out of space to build highways so it’s a possibility of increasing the capacity of the highways that we have by having cars going bumper-to-bumper at 50 miles per hour by getting the human out of the equation. It’s impossible to say how long in the future that will take place. I suspect more than ten years from now that we’ll have lanes set aside for driverless cars but who knows.
The other thing that it will change is how airplanes get around. . .who knows, maybe down the road, human pilots will not be as common as they are today, that’s another possibility.
Some people do wonder if it’s possible to become too dependent on these satellite-positioning systems, because, what is the backup? The answer today is that for a lot of these services, there is no backup. Now GPS is a very robust system, it’s not going anywhere, but there are some things that make it not work as well. Down the road, we have to worry about things like solar interference and make sure the radio spectrum is free of other signals. We have to worry about jamming. Although it is illegal to do so–GPS is shockingly easy to interfere with by someone determined to block the system or create problems.
Has it happened?
One of the famous examples was at Newark Airport. A few years ago a new airport positioning system was being tested. Every so often, the GPS would stop working briefly. They finally figured out that what was going on was that right next to the airport was the New Jersey Turnpike. A truck was driving by with a GPS jammer to prevent the central office from tracking the movements of this truck. The jammer plugs into the power adapter and GPS doesn’t work for the vehicle. The problem is that it affects a zone much bigger than a truck, including, in this case, the grounds of the airport.
There actually are ways to provide backup to global positioning, including ground-based transmissions. For instance, the LORAN system was made up of ground-based radio transmitters that allowed you to determine position. That system was mostly shut down and many people are not happy about that because they ask the question–”What’s the backup to satellite positioning?”
The new generations of GPS satellites being developed right now will include features that will protect the signals and make them even more useful for users all over the world. I think right now, the robustness of the GPS system is such that we’re not in any kind of danger zone, but I do think we’ll see a push for a ground-based backup.