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Temporal Binoculars

Here's an idea that I had a while ago while standing at the top of one of the mountains on the Holyoke Range: Wouldn't it be incredibly cool if we could give students (and anyone, for that matter) a pair of binoculars that had both a focus knob and a time control? With the time control set to zero, looking through them would show you exactly what you'd see through a normal pair of binoculars: A zoomed-in or zoomed-out field of view (FOV) based on where they're pointed. However, by turning the time control you could simulate seeing the same area in the past or future. There are three primary areas of interest that the control would modify:
  • geology - how the FOV is predicted to look
  • flora - what kinds of tress, grasses, etc. might have been present
  • fauna - animations of possible animals that one may have seen
For example, I'm told that my area was covered by a massive inland lake millions of years ago. I would like to be able to twist the time control and see the lake forming and draining.

So what's the value? Well, for one, as a pedagogical tool I think temporal binoculars would generate great excitement, and encourage discussion and discovery. Second, if there was a way to add current scientific predictions regarding the impacts of human enterprise on the environment (e.g., global warming), such a device might help us better appreciate what we have. For example, if you could switch between 'low impact' and 'high impact' settings, and see the difference they make on your own back yard 1000 years down the road, would we think differently about using our cars so much?

A few more feature ideas:
  • Animation would be crucial - In addition to static (i.e., a single time) viewing, you'd certainly want to be able to have the time control move forward or back in order to more vividly see the changes. Is this the wrong form factor for it? Maybe not - it's like the current digital video cameras that can take both snapshots and movies...
  • Logarithmic control - Given geologic time scales, a linear control would be useless. Maybe a control that accelerates time more if you twist harder. (This reminds me of that great 'powers of ten' applet a while back that started in close to the Earth then zoomed out 10x for each second. I couldn't find the one I was thinking of, but here's another one.)
  • Programmable 'dentents' to show special events - Virtual notches in the time control that work like those game controllers that vibrate when driving over bumps. These might indicate particularly interesting times, say a volcano erupting, etc.
  • Flora and fauna sliders - These would control amount of those shown, respectively. Handy if you want to focus only on geology?
  • A 'conservativeness' slider - This would control how wild the scientific speculation is. A low setting minimizes controversial aspects of the three areas of simulation, while higher settings would add more speculation. This might encourage discussion about scientific method and what theories are. (A one dimensional control is probably wrong for this as there might be many competing theories. Maybe a button that toggles through them for the current FOV would work better.)
  • 'Easter eggs' - These would be things like a striking physical feature, animal, or event that teachers could insert to generate excitement, or to use as a pedagogical treasure hunt activity.
Some brief thoughts on implementation: What would we need to do this? First, we have the following inputs:
  • positioning and pointing information (seems straightforward - GPS and a compass)
  • control settings - zoom and time (given)
We would feed these into a GIS-like geology database allowing lookup of the FOV, including a simulation of the geology at the specified time (tectonics, etc.). This would return a realistic 3D model that is mapped back onto the FOV. To it we can add texture for flora, and animations of fauna, depending on their respective controls. Easy! :-)

Related work: What is this similar to? Well, it's essentially a portable virtual reality system used to augment reality. I think the draw in this case would be that you're actually standing there with students, so you get the contextual impact of location. A Google search turned up two academic papers that seem to be on target: VIRTUAL REALITY: A New World for Geographic Exploration: and TOWARDS A VIRTUAL REALITY INTERFACE FOR LANDSCAPE VISUALIZATION:. I also found a CD-ROM (Evolving Plate Tectonics (CD-ROM):) and bunch of links for commercial tools that aid mining natural resources (e.g., oil and natural gas) via simulation.

What do you think?

Reader Comments (3)

Again, excellent comment, Danila. I'm sure you're right about the initial industry being tourism, rather than education. Though I'd much rather see less technology in education in this country, and more spending on infrastructure, teachers, etc. (I can't stand schools that spend lots of money on PCs for little kids when their libraries are falling apart.)

Regarding the 'unauthorised' point, it's a good one, and I think it has potential akin to posts on http://wikipedia.org/ - fostering richness and diversity, assuming there's an active (and relatively unbiased - or balanced biased) 'garbage' maintainer...

Thanks again,


August 13, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Excellent blog, Matt. I really enjoy reading your post.

Danila, I couldn't agree more.

[ binoculars | http://www.binoculars-reviews.com ] maniac

October 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBinoculars' Fan

Thanks very much, Izrul.

October 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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