Monday, November 17, 2008

zoomy zoomy zoom

I've always loved "universal zoom" animations.

There's the opening sequence of the Carl Sagan-based movie Contact. And there's a sequence from the Imax movie Cosmic Voyage, in an extended and a vertiginously compressed version

The one I remember best was on a poster for the Carl Sagan TV series Cosmos, in the early 80's. This was essentially based on Charles and Ray Eames' 1977 short film, Powers of 10.

And this in turn has an inspiration in Kees Boeke's 1957 children's book Cosmic view; the universe in 40 jumps. Instead of using photographic imagery, Boeke uses cartographic, drawn images both when moving out beyond aerial photography and when moving in to the level of a mosquito.

This zoom in/zoom out idea makes continuous what in our everyday experience is a blurry line between familiar and unfamiliar. We are lifted (and compressed) from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

The scale we work in the "real world" at any given moment is at most a millimeter in precision (threading a needle), or a square kilometer in breadth (the view from a hillside). Beyond these distances (more or less), 1,000,000 times the other in order of magnitude, we can work but only with aids: microscopes on one hand, transport on the other. And in terms of geographic space, we can work over time across a larger area.

To push these natural limits of scale is and always has been a sort of magic. I've been working for some time on the bird's eye view artist John Bachmann [the paper will be published in the January issue of Imprint, but I'll set up a page with links to Bachmann's images available on line, sometime this year.] Bachmann's magic at his time was the creation of views from the point of view of a bird, at a time when no photographs had been taken from the air (the earliest surviving air photo is from 1860 of Boston). His views, and all nineteenth-century and earlier bird's eye views are works of imagination, carefully constructed from bits and pieces of ground-gathered evidence.

As zoom-in-zoom-out becomes the norm on line, it continues to blur the difference between a map that reflects our direct experience and a map that shows what is essentially alien to that experience. Sometimes (as with Google Earth) the experience mimics rising and falling from a (marked up) earth's surface. Sometimes the zoom is clearly like looking at an artificial picture (note how Google Maps zooms out to an infinitely repeating Mercator projection).

Multi-scale map systems were a subject of some discussion at NACIS this year, notably with Penn State's ScaleMaster project, which is really as much a project organizer as as anything; letting multi-scale project organizers set guidelines for when to reorganize what data. Making cartographically sophisticated map system at multiple zoom levels is a new thing, and a growing thing. We think of it as different than an animated map, becasue we are creating static images that users move around, but the experience of using the maps in effect is animation. And it would be good for us to bear that in mind as the field expands...

1 comment:

natcase said...

Late comment: The Eames Foundation publishes The Power of Ten as a DVD, as a poster, a flip-book (the full-sized book is out of print). See www.powersof10.com