We can see the world like never before. A confluence of ubiquitous cameras, the commercialization of satellite imaging and Web sites specializing in photos and videos has put the world at our fingertips. And more is being put there every day.
A picture taken from a helicopter of the the Peten region of Guatemala, where Maya remains are located.
Consider planning a trip, or a move. If you're heading for a new place, a photo-sharing site such as Flickr could reveal your future neighborhood, street, building or even specific rooms. A video-sharing site such as YouTube might bring up a video that someone took of your future surroundings.
Or, for that matter, your past surroundings. It's just as easy to find pictures or videos of the places you used to live, or visited in the past. There's something voyeuristic about seeing a place you've known before through the lens of somebody else.
You can also see how things have changed, or stayed the same. Using the "street view" feature on Google Maps, this writer noticed, with some satisfaction, that whoever is now occupying his old apartment in New York is using the same off-white reverse blinds he installed many years ago.
Some lenses are in handheld gadgets, but others are in orbiting satellites. The Ikonos satellite weighs some 1,600 pounds and glides above us at about four miles per second. A high-resolution imaging satellite, it is owned and operated by GeoEye, a fast-growing outfit in Virginia that does brisk business selling bird's-eye views to developers, the government, and other big organizations.
But the company has a philanthropic arm, too. The satellite, launched in September 1999, has collected nearly a decade's worth of imagery, meaning changes that have taken place over time can be spotted.
That's potentially useful for a variety of research projects. Among them are tracking beetle infestations in Yosemite's pine forests, discovering ruins in Peru and revealing paths created by animal poachers in Africa.
The GeoEye Foundation was established "because it was the right thing to do," says spokesman Mark Brender. But it also has a less altruistic function, he admits. It helps the company spot university talent it might want to hire. The company had about a hundred new hires last year, and it's a constant struggle to fill the dozens of positions it usually has open.
Many of the graduates being hired by GeoEye and its competition are versed in "geospatial information systems" and headed for high-paying jobs that are still hard to categorize.
Geography is almost sexy these days. Many drivers now wonder how they ever lived without GPS guidance, a feature now appearing on many handheld gadgets. One of the most popular games on the Internet (including social networking site Facebook) is Traveler IQ Challenge, whereby players click on a world map to locate various places. Millions now wile away their free time taking a geography test.
Meanwhile, geeks everywhere keep coming up with new ways to usefully mash data with freely available Google Maps. One site developed by two Russians, Wikimapia, lets users label various places on a satellite-view map.
If you're traveling to a new city and want to stay at a hotel near a park you can jog in, you might use the site to find one, seeing the world as a bird would, but with everything below usefully labeled.
Sites like these have given us a new way to see the world. But we've merely glimpsed the possibilities. E-mail to a friend