The Word on Snow Crash and Google Earth

If you read RealityPrime, you probably already have a good idea of the actual connection between Snow Crash and Google Earth. But if you read any of the other blog entries about the intriguing Arizona State University beta test without also coming here, you might have been lead astray on at least one key point.

So I’d like to be as clear as possible about the role Snow Crash played for Google Earth. I’ve also modified the old post on my personal blog to reflect this added clarity for anyone who wanders by.

Here’s an example of someone seeking to spin gold rumors from speculative hay:

The speculation about a Google Earth Second Life started last year. "The notion that you can create objects and buildings and place them in a virtual world makes Google Earth sounds less like a mapping tool and more like a metaverse. What’s a metaverse? Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson introduced the term in his seminal 1992 novel, Snow Crash. (…) In Stephenson’s novel, millions of users uploaded customized "avatars," or virtual personalities, and strolled the street, entering shops and exclusive nightclubs, conversing and trading with the metaverse’s other denizens." In fact, Snow Crash inspired the development of Google Earth.

That last link is to my original blog entry, which also made its way to the Wiki page and gets hit quite often. The mistake is in thinking the Metaverse inspired Google Earth. In reality, the element of Snow Crash John Hanke was specifically referring to was Stephenson’s panoptic "Earth" application, which bears a striking resemblance to Google Earth.

That doesn’t mean John wasn’t moved by visions of Metaverse / Cyberspace / "The Other Realm" as much as the rest of us (btw, that last one, from Vinge’s ground-breaking True Names was actually first). John did, after all, help create Meridian 59, one of the first 3D online-multiplayer games, long before coming to run Keyhole. But that’s not the point of his reference as I understood it. And I’m pretty sure John was as aware as the rest of us that Snow Crash was a fairly dystopian vision, not a literal blueprint for the future.

I should note that I’m a big fan of Stephenson’s work as well, but with similar disclaimers. I actually got to meet him when he visited my first VR startup in Seattle, around 1993. He was doing some research and later sought to understand the technical challenges of building an actual branded Metaverse  that apparently never got off the ground. He’d even helped me try to find an agent for my first novel, which was especially generous of him since he hadn’t even read it. Quite the mensch.

What I haven’t mentioned before, because it frankly sounds a little too prescient/coincidental to be believable, is that that particular novel I was shopping featured both my own early visions of Cyberspace (which I’d called "RealityPrime" …) and an Earth-like application to boot, used to virtually explore a new planet prior to settlement. Although Snow Crash came out well before I wrote a word, I (embarrassingly) didn’t read it until a few years later, at which point I felt "significantly less special." It was definitely first, better, and my novel is still sitting on my hard drive, waiting for a potential rewrite (my family assures me it’s quite the page turner…) But I can at least attest that I was interested in stuff like Google Earth without needing much outside inspiration, though I never imagined back then that I’d actually get to help build the real deal. [And btw, that’s not to claim that I offered the inspiration for GE either. I just helped build it.]

As for a more substantial connection between Virtual Worlds and Google Earth, it’s not hard to find. Just look at the backgrounds of the people who started Keyhole. I already mentioned John’s background. Similarly, I’d been working on VR development for most of my career. Michael Jones had been as well, via SGI and their many interesting customers. And Brian McClendon did via SGI’s world-class 3D hardware.

[In fact, that’s how I got involved with Keyhole in the first place: I met Michael & company when I’d worked on Disney’s VR projects. We worked very closely with SGI. And in fact, Jim Helman from the same SGI team had recommended me for the Disney job in the first place after seeing my work at that VR startup — the same one Neal Stephenson had visited… Talk about networking! I’ve had a very fortunate, if accidental career — decisions on my next move to be announced relatively soon…]

Anyway, apart from Snow Crash references, the reality is that Google Earth is already a Virtual World and has been since day one. It was designed to convey a strong sense of Presence, but not necessarily Identity (avatar). That can change if and when it’s important to Google, but that’s the way it was originally meant to be. And I thought at least some of you would be interested in the finer points of its history.


8 thoughts on “The Word on Snow Crash and Google Earth

  1. I admit I’ve been scratching my head a bit lately at some of the major ‘spin-doctoring’ occuring, regarding the references. What I’m finding, however, is that the majority of this spin-doctoring is actually coming the investment community — big shock there!

    The irony is, that these stock investment writers like to make you believe in something that they have very little — if any — knowledge about. It’s a world that’s laughable in many regards!

    And in many ways — I wonder how people like that will survive in a metaverse reality someday. If they will, or if they’ll simply find a way to corrupt it with disinformation, just as they have through the Internet.

  2. Case in point. Just look at the Yahoo! Investors traps today, and see all the articles that these people write day-in, day-out… It’s humorous, at best, really.

  3. Wow, I’m actually surprised to see someone at Forbes having written-up an accurate portrayal of the problems with similar issues.

    Now, Avi… Imagine what they’re doing to every-other stock on the market. Actually, I’ve been and am a victim of people exploiting the Internet for their own corrupt gains. But, the SEC — the DoJ — do they care about the average investor — the average citizen?

    It’s an interesting issue for me, considering since having become a victim.

  4. Hi, interesting article, but its a complete fallacy without any basis in fact. The system was conceived by myself in the mid-1980’s and preceeds this trash novel. Only with the development of the WWW did it become feasible for me to implement a real-time GIS for the planet.

    A link to my Java based system was posted onto a Java site called GameLan in 1999. The owners of this site went on to establish a new company and develop an identical system – which had the unique priviledge of sole access to the US spy satelllite photography library, couresy of the CIA.

    In 2003, I approached Google to develop my system but received no response. It could just as easily have being called Yahoo Earth or AltaVista Earth. As to how I came up with the idea for developing the system is a lot more interesting than supposedly reading some novel. But nobody wants to read that story.

  5. Ken, in fact, the idea of a “real-time GIS for the planet” goes back even farther than the 1980s, just as the idea of interactive zooming into maps goes way back. I’d suggest taking a deep breath and getting over yourself.

    What was novel about the novel and great about Keyhole was the interface and the methods for actually handling all that real-world data, not the basic idea itself. Ideas are cheap. I pitched the original idea for Crazy Taxi to the guy who got Sega to build it. I don’t expect a penny for it, despite it being a billion dollar franchise, because it was simply my job (though the patent Sega took out does piss me off — not the lack of recognition, mind you, but claiming exclusivity for ideas that don’t “belong” to you or anyone and preventing others from “copying” you is wrong).

    Anway, several people, perhaps just like you, have tried to implement a sphere of imagery with some “earth” data on it — some even in Java too. There’s nothing very special about that, I’m afraid. Texture-mapping a sphere isn’t the big deal. It would fail the obviousness test. What’s hard is making it work right — zooming and streaming high-resolution detail in real-time. Read my article on “How Goggle Earth Works” for some insight as to at least one set of hard problems that needs to be solved to do for real.

  6. Fair enough Daniel, I have no disagreements with any of your observations. As for the “obviousness test”, I knew it was an unpatenable product when I developed the prototype system. Just to get low resolution satellite imagery for the prototype cost me a small fortune. Which is the reason I approached Oracle, Microsoft, and eventually Google with the proposal.

    Both Microsoft and Oracle had subsequently released commercial products, but I had received nothing. Thats how they do business. I eventually approached Google because I figured they would release it free and take any currency or profit out of the product line.

    All that said, I look at what Google released and my heart sinks. Its like looking at a bad puppet show. Do something nice for people and it appears off their map.

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