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On a Clear Electronic Day . . .


Kensington -- Someone could make a lot of money by producing a single map of the world. Not a printed single-page map of the National Geographic style, nor a map printed on a globe. Something far more elaborate and detailed -- and computerized.

In principle, a computerized world map should be easy to make. It would allow you to pan across continents or to zoom in on, say, Paris or Bombay or Bangor, Maine, and see individual streets, with or without their names. Or you could zoom out and see all of Europe or Asia, or an entire hemisphere.

The basic principle of such a map would be similar to that of computer-based spreadsheet programs. The spreadsheet program I use most often comprises an effective working area of nearly 7,000 square feet, half again the size of the lot my house is on. Of course, my monitor gives only a 6-by-8-inch view of any part of it, but I can pan the screen over its whole area.

The spreadsheet is flat, but the world map I have in mind would be spherical. It would appear flat when you looked at small parts like Rome, or all of southern Europe, but the total representation would be spherical. It would be like an ordinary 12-inch globe, as viewed through jeweler's loupe; but, being computerized, you could zoom in or out over an enormous range.

With such a computerized globe you could look at, say, eastern North America, then pan across the Atlantic to England and Western Europe, move down to the Mediterranean and work your way east to Bosnia, then zoom in on Sarajevo and look at individual streets and -- given enough data and detail -- even see individual buildings.

In its ultimate form, such a map could be updated hourly, so you could see the locations of the warring factions in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka or wherever the action is. You could zoom in on earthquake damage in Indonesia or zoom out to view tropical storms in the Atlantic or Pacific.

If the map included topographic features you could, given enough computer speed, "fly" down the Grand Canyon to Lake Meade, then drop off in Las Vegas for a while, or you could pan across the Pacific to South Asia and navigate your way through the Himalayas at any desired altitude.

An additional feature of this computerized map would be the ability to view at a slanted angle, as from an airplane. Years ago I flew across Lake Michigan at 40,000 feet. From that altitude, the horizon is 250 miles away. I could see the tallest buildings in Chicago a hundred miles to the south, and I could see hundreds of miles of the lake's shoreline, just as maps portray it.

With this proposed computer map, you could see what Baltimore looks like from an airplane at any distance or direction or altitude. Or you could rise slowly over the Grand Canyon, then pan west toward the Pacific coast or east to see the 1,700-foot-high Shiprock in northwest New Mexico. I saw Shiprock once when I was flying west; the plane was 80 miles south of that volcanic core. I'd like to create that view on a computer.

This computerized map would allow you to zoom out and see the earth from millions of miles. You might even travel to the moon and "visit" the sites where humans have walked, and "fly" along the rims of craters or along the "coasts" of the lunar "seas."

You could pull back from the moon and "look around" for the present location of Mars or Venus, then zoom in on their surface features, as presently known.

Not even the sun would be beyond such a computerized representation: You could close in on the latest sunspots, getting as close as the available resolution allows, and examine the fine-structure features of solar flares. Then you could zoom out to cool off in the far reaches of the solar system, examining along the way the clouds of Jupiter and Saturn or the surfaces of their respective moons.

You could come back to earth then and look at the weather approaching your hometown.

Such a map might someday be available, complete with real-time updating of weather, wars and geological activity. A battery-powered pocket-sized version could project its images on the insides of your glasses so that you could travel the solar system while you're sitting in traffic during your commute to work or during spare moments in the day. You could rise up 10 miles, or 200, or a thousand miles over your city or town and then look around at the weather and at the advancing edge of dawn or night.

I met a guy once who worked at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. His job was the creation of models of things like Jupiter and its moons. He acknowledged the problem of representing the solar system in a comprehensible scale model; if the earth were the size of a BB, the sun would be as big as a basketball 93 feet away -- and Pluto would be nearly a mile from that model sun. A scale-model solar system small enough to fit in the Air and Space Museum would require a magnifying glass to see the earth. The computerized map I'm proposing would make it possible to grasp the size and scale of the solar system by allowing you to navigate through it.

A pocket version of a computerized world map would be handy for local travel, too. You could get the street names in virtually all the world's cities, with or without phonetic pronunciation guides.

Such a map is years from realization. But someday, when it gets on the market, it'll give one hell of a perspective on the present narrow confines of our mundane realities.

Robert Burruss is an engineer who writes about technology and society. His address is ssmitaltech.com.

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