Thursday, October 20, 2016

New Paper: How to make an Excellent Google Earth tour

We (myself and Artemis Skarlatidou) have just submitted a paper to a cartographic journal about a successful experiment we did on users' understanding of Google Earth Tours.  The work produced two rules of thumb to consider when making Google Earth tours so I thought I'd blog about it.  Note that the title of this post isn't how to make a 'cool' Google Earth tour that grabs users' attention, this is about how to use them as an effective communication tool.

Why should I care about Google Earth tours?
Before we get to the two best practices its useful to think about the media we're discussing.  Is it worth using?  My answer to that is that Google Earth tours are common on the web and the wider generic group of Google Earth like animations (Atlas tours) are everywhere!  e.g.:
- TV (e.g. weather forecasts)
- The web (e.g. National Geographic)
- Mobile satnav apps

As an example of Atlas tours in satnav apps, both Google Maps and Apple Maps in driving directions mode will zoom into tricky road junctions when you approach them but then zoom out when you are on a straight road section to show you the wider view.  

So you should consider creating a Google Earth tour (or Atlas tour if you prefer) as a way to tell your spatial story.

Best practice 1: use high paths
If you are producing a tour with two or more low points, you get to choose how the camera moves between the two low views.  Users' mental map of the study area will be better when your tour following a 'Rocket' path(1) where there is a mid point where you can see the start and end of your tour. This video explains the point and tells you how to achieve it technically in Google Earth:

Best practice 2: use of speed
We haven't explicitly proved it but an animation speed of 1 second for any camera motion is a good rule of thumb(2).  If the tour is more visually complex, you may want to slow the speed down.  Reasons to take more time:
- You are flying through a complex 3D cityscape
- There are lots of elements on screen (points, lines, areas) that you want users to understand

As an example, these are some of the experimental Google Earth tours; only the 'low, fast' condition really troubled the users in the experiment.

Atlas tours are very common as they are an effective media to communicate a spatial story or data.  Google Earth is one of a suite of software that can be used to produce Atlas tours, I think the principles described here will apply whatever software is used.

I read all the studies I could find in 2011 and produced an earlier paper which discussed these and 17 other best practices for producing Google Earth tours.  This is the shorter blog version of the paper.

1] In the paper, this is called the high path.  Less memorable but more professional sounding.

2] our experiment ran at speeds slower than this and user's had little problem building up a mental map of the study area.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Embedding Google Expeditions in teaching

tl;dr summary  

  • Interface and technology:  Excellent
  • Content: Very good
  • Educational design: Could do better.
  • Worth investigating: Yes


Google launched expeditions for iOS this week (announcement of release).  This is important as previously expeditions was only available for Android devices and, being made available for both of the main platforms, removes a serious hurdle for schools in using it.  In the UK, they have also promised to produce lesson plans which goes some way to answering a criticism I raised previously, that they are passive ‘Cook’s tours’ and need to be more active.  So while my dearly beloved watched some TV last night I geeked out looking at the expeditions currently available.  I concentrated on the biology models, the natural history museums and the geography expeditions.  Here are some thoughts on those expeditions:


Just like street view before it (my post on educational ideas on how to use streetview in teaching) there is some fantastic content available for teachers to use in teaching Earth sciences.  It's totally free.  You don't even need the cardboard, you could plug a tablet into a projector to show students the content.

Slick interface and no problems combining platforms:

I experimented using two devices, one following (student), one leading (teacher).  No problems mixing iPhone, iPad and Android devices in all sorts of combinations.  The ‘show and tell’ interface worked slickly and intuitively, you can direct student's attention to where they should be looking and see where students are looking to check they're keeping up.  Nice work.

I'm told that it throws up some errors being used on schools' wifi systems.  Having your own WLAN (about £30) gets around this.


You can download the data to the teacher's device and then from there, over a WLAN (wireless local area network, think wifi not necessarily connected to internet) it streams to all the student's devices - no need to download the same data to everyone's device.  It also means if you have the technical chops you could set up a WLAN in a study centre in the middle of nowhere without access to the internet and run expeditions with students.  I'm thinking this will also be very useful in schools with dodgy internet.

Not the right media for the Biology Models

There are a number of human biology expeditions including the heart, the skeleton etc.  I'm not convinced they work because they consist of a static, 360 degree view of a the model where you can only see one side.  With this type of media you can't see the context e.g, considering the heart:

  • Where is it in relation to the lungs/ribs/diaphragm?  
  • How does the heart fit in with the circulation system?
IMHO a much better media to use in this context is what I call a 'build animation': video with audio where layers of graphic information are revealed one by one.  See Khan Academy's content and compare it with the heart expedition:

One of the photospheres in the ear model expedition is particularly poor:  it shows a model of an ear from the outside.  Much better to get students to look at the real thing, and, you know what?   There are lots of great examples attached to other students' heads all around them.

Museum Expeditions - hmmmm.

I also think the museum expeditions are pushing the format too far.  A museum is intrinsically designed around a 'skim view' and 'zoom in' viewing model* - you walk around the hall looking about you generally (skimming), you then see something that interests you so you zoom in: you walk towards it and read the information at the kiosk or exhibit.  Presenting materials formatted in this way in an expedition is preventing the zooming in part - you are 'stuck' to one point on the floor without the ability to walk up to an exhibit and access the detail.  

However, when the museum is impressing us with scale, e.g. discussing the dinosaur skeleton in the Natural History museum (see image), then an expedition becomes more effective because the museum experience is all about staying at the 'zoomed out' view.

Scale in Geography Expeditions:

If there are no familiar items in view (people, houses, etc. etc.) it's impossible to tell the scale of the view: 

Any idea how big those icebergs are?  A scale comparison needs to be provided, this could be the human drone operator as a Point of Interest (POI) or providing a POI showing a 100m line.

Geography Expeditions need maps:

I also think that the Geography expeditions really need to use maps.  Combining what I call the 'avatar view' (human scale view, as in expeditions) with the map view (views from altitude setting the place in context geographically) is a very powerful narrative tool and I haven't seen any examples of this being done in the expeditions.  I'll tackle that in a separate blog post.

Teaching tool:

Google are going to publish lesson plans about how to use expeditions in teaching.  Good, but I don't think that's enough.  IMHO expeditions need to be more customisable, in effect becoming a simple content creation tool.  Teachers need to be able to easily:
- Add polls with their own questions.
- Add their own POIs - there are many teaching reasons you may want to show students a jungle in an expedition, e.g. environmental science, biology, geography or tourism.  Having only one set of POIs available per expedition is limiting.
- Add traditional PowerPoint slides between the photospheres, e.g. maps putting the location in geographical context (see 'expeditions need maps' above) or showing a zoomed in view of a dinosaur tooth with annotations in the dinosaur example discussed earlier. 

Watch the journey into a glacier expedition, its done by Jamie Buchan-Dunlop (of Digital Explorer fame) and, as usual, he does it really well.  My favourite was the Mt Everest expedition, lovely example of taking students to a place that they will never probably go. 

*I'm sure there's some literature about this, do comment and let me know if there are some proper terms I should be using.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Students creating Atlas Tours (aka Story Map, Google Earth Tour)

screenshots from student produced ATs I found on the web
Screenshots from student produced ATs I've found on the web
What is an Atlas Tour? So I’ve been writing some papers over the summer about ‘Atlas Tours’ (ATs) by which I mean a series of maps that tell a narrative.  An example well known in the UK residents is the BBC TV weather forecast

which is made up of animated time maps, camera motions through virtual space and a narrative delivered by a presenter.   In UK outreach events I used to run teaching geography, this was the ‘map’ that people said they looked at most often.

ATs encourage users to watch: A great example of how useful ATs are is from National Geographic who produced this site about tracking the illegal trade in ivory across Africa .  The web logs of this resource show that atlas tours encourage people to engage more with content than other non-narrative, interactive maps (Kaitlin Yarnall Presentation at 18.40 minutes).  

Easy enough for students to do:  The cool thing is that the technology (and I'm thinking Esri Story Maps and Google Earth Tour Builder here) has made it easier for students and other non-specialists to produce ATs almost as sophisticated as the Ivory trade example.  As a result a number of assignments have been set asking students to produce ATs, a good example is the PSU and Esri MOOC which asked students to produce a map based story as a final project, many chose to produce ATs via Esri Story Maps (Anthony Robinson and Colleagues paper (2015) )

Other Examples of students’ ATs on the web include: 
One of the papers promotes ATs as a good assignment to set students, watch this space for more!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Thoughts on Expeditions following CAGTI16

Expeditions as Purple Cow: Expeditions is Google’s project where you use a viewer (such as cardboard) with your smart phone.  The system gives you 360 vision with wrap around visuals so you can turn and look at things above, below, left and right.  There was a great sense of excitement around this project at CAGTI16 with teachers interested in how they could use it and I heard very positive reports from teachers who had been involved in the pilot scheme.  Google have been very active capturing imagery from polar regions, coral reefs even other planets.  I think its certainly something to grab attention, it would be excellent at a Geography University open day or outreach event to pull people in.  It reminds me of Seth Godwin’s Purple Cow concept.  Well done Google, its worth paying attention to as a project just for this.

Hardware: Currently to use expeditions you need an Android tablet for the teacher and Android smart phones and cardboards for the students.  A comment I heard a lot of was 'when will it be available for iOS?' only being on Android is obviously a limiting factor because I doubt many schools are going to shell out on buying multiple Android phones just to use expeditions.  I imagine this will come soon.

Cooks Tour:  However I think educationally it needs more development.  The expeditions I saw at CAGTI expeditions are a ‘Cooks’ tour (see this paper ) - students get a wonderful immersive experience (hear the squeals in this video)

but they are being essentially passive because the lesson is structured around the teacher guiding students' view to interesting points and talking to the students.  The students themselves are not doing very much.  A Cook's tour approach can be a good introductory exercise at the start of a field trip (again, see the above paper), but to learn properly students need to do more, things like:
  • Collecting and analyzing data, 
  • Coming up with and testing hypotheses 
  • or even making their own expeditions
Early days: But its early days in the world of Google expeditions.  I discussed all of this with Jamie of Digital Explorer at CATGI16 who has been involved in recording expeditions for Google and persuaded me there was more to it than I believed.  He pointed out that his recent abseil into a glacier 360 degree video

uses a neat little trick:  The film has been annotated with bits of text that students have to hunt for, it becomes a challenge to see if they can ‘collect’ all the text before the video ends.  This is getting the student to be more active than the Cook's tour which is good.  We both agreed that a lovely educational activity would be to get students to create their own expeditions.

History of VR in virtual field trips: Expeditions are getting attention elsewhere, Audrey Watters has an interesting post about the history of VR relevant to expeditions - she points out that people have been claiming that technology can replace the field trip since the 1920s with technology like the stereoscope.  However, Martin Weller's post about Pokamon Go  is a good counter point.  He makes the argument that just because you've seen an educational technology appear before is not an excuse to refuse to engage when it resurfaces elsewhere and gets a lot of attention.

So I look forward to seeing how expeditions develop and I'm aching to get my hands on an 'ExpeditionsBuilder': GoogleEarthTourBuilder for expeditions that I can get students to use.

Edit 11.07pm:  Noodling around some more, I find much more detailed advice from Google on how to integrate expeditions into lessons:
"To get the most of an Expedition, it should be preceded and followed with connected learning activities. The Expedition itself is one powerful piece of the instructional puzzle. So as you’re planning for the experience consider the following learning activities for before, during and after the Expedition."
so accusing them of pushing Cook's tours is a bit unfair, they're advising teachers to use expeditions mixed in with activities as but why have they hidden it away off on another 'semi Google' ( website? 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Thoughts after CAGTI16 (Geo Teachers Institute) part 1

So this time last week I was helping lead the Californian Geo Teachers Institute.  John Bailey had filled his hall to capacity with some amazing teachers (example blog post), educational technologists, librarians...  I thought I'd jot down some thoughts.

Maps are for everyone:  Firstly, its interesting to note the difference between Geo in the USA and in the UK - here, geography is a core school subject so if you put on a GTI you'd mostly attract geography teachers.  STEM teachers would mostly stay away - I predict they'd say 'maps are for geographers'.  In the States, geography is far less strong at school level so a range of teachers from many subjects showed up to learn what Google Geo tools could do for them.  Geo tools are now so easy to use that they can be used across subjects and it would be good if this could done in the UK too.

What Google Earth is for:

So true...
Map Design:  I did a session on map design for teachers.  As part of this I produced a worksheet that takes you through creating some of the basics of good map design via Google My Maps.   Important design points worth making about my maps:
  • Google My Maps now allows you to select the base map.  Subtle and pale is good as the worksheet example illustrates.
  • I find My Maps to be simpler to use than ArcGIS online
  • You can choose a rainbow range to style your data.  I can't think of a reason you would EVER want to use this and, each time you do, a puppy dies - Kenneth Field rants about rainbow maps as well.  

I'll save discussion of tour tips, my thoughts on expeditions and the future of Google's Geo tools for a second post.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

EarthQuiz quick review

I came across EarthQuiz done by some colleagues running the project.

Its a really nice idea, find some streetview (or other geotagged photo or satellite image from Google maps) and ask a geology question related to it.  For extra fun, you then have to guess where in the world the photo is from (bottom left map in the image above).

Good use of VR in teaching:  The nice teaching point is the geological question, you have to mostly navigate around in streetview to hunt for clues to solve the geological problem.  This is a good use of VR, if you accept my argument that this is a simple form of Virtual Reality.  The 360 degree vision is actually important to solving the problem whereas in a lot of cases, the VR is only there for show.

Where I'd take it:  What would be really nice would be if it developed into a resource where you had a number of streetview points that you navigated to via a Geological map.  You'd then have to solve a more complex geological problem.  However, I think that would involve taking custom streetview images in order to generate the required material so not a small project.

A more detailed write up.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Virtual Reality: iPhone or Microwave?

It's fair to say that the iPhone, and all the smart phones that followed, have revolutionized our lives.  Microwaves haven't.  I remember when these ovens first became common, my Mum cooked a microwave cake using a temperature probe following a complex recipe involving a temperature probe.  The cake was a flaccid, pale disappointment.  Everyone soon learnt that microwaves weren't going to replace ovens or hobs - they were good for heating up last nights stir fry, doing baked potatoes quickly and pretty much nothing else.

It's clear that there is a lot of media noise about VR at the moment driven by the release of Oculus Rift and the lower spec Google Cardboard.   Column inches are no guarantee of success, so we should be asking will VR be a Microwave or an iPhone technology?  Will it rocket in popularity or fail to impress for the second time?  My vote is for 'meh' rather than 'yay!' and I'll try and persuade you of my point of view by a bit of deconstruction:

Tunnel Vision: To understand what VR does and doesn't offer I need to digress into explaining a bit about your visual system.  Look slightly to the right of the text on whatever device you're reading this on.  Despite being able to see paragraphs and lines you'll find you can no longer read the words.   That's because your vision is made up of a very sensitive zone (the fovea) which takes up half of the nerves that link your eye to your brain.  Around this sensitive centre is a less responsive zone.  You couldn't read the text when not looking at it because of the lack of visual processing power in this outer zone.  Although this part of the eye is less sensitive, it is good at detecting movement; you can prove this by another little experiment - pick something moving in your visual field like a tree in the wind, look away by 60 degrees or so.  In your peripheral vision you should notice the moving branches but will not really 'see' the trunk of the tree.  So your eye really does work like it has a low level of tunnel vision.

The final part of the visual system I want to describe to you is eye movements.  To keep track of what is going on around us (is this lion I see stalking through the grass about to eat us?) our eyes flit around moving the fovea rapidly from place to place in order to track the important things (lion) whilst ignoring other less important objects (grass).  These movements are known as saccades and your brain is so good at processing the patches of high density information that you gain from them that you are largely unaware of your eye movements.  As a result, you have the sense that you are looking everywhere at once despite the fact that you aren't - you're actually sampling the space in high resolution patch by patch and tracking movement everywhere.  This video is a lovely illustration of that fact:

What does VR add?  When we use VR the goggles cover our whole visual field,  not just part of it.  However, when we go on a virtual field trip or watch a film on a non-VR device our eyes direct our fovea to what is being shown on the tablet.  A video of our eyes would show them flicking from place to place in rapid saccades scanning the screen for the most important thing to look at.  The fact that our peripheral vision is looking at the bedroom, bus or library that surrounds the tablet doesn't really matter because we are processing the information we need in our fovea just fine.  So I'm suspicious that VR doesn't really add that much to the information we can gather from a virtual field trip when compared to the same content delivered on, say, a laptop screen.

Immersion:  But gathering information isn't the only benefit that VR is said to produce, it's also said to be immersive.  By this people mean that it produces the feeling that you are actually in the place depicted.  In a recent radio 4 program an example was given where VR goggles were used in a lab to show a full vision simulation of the same lab.  Then the VR floor opens up before the viewer and they are asked to step into the hole - a challenge to the part of their brain that knows what they are seeing is not real to overcome the part that really thinks the Goggles are showing the truth.  Users explained just how compelling they found the illusion and that they were convinced of the power of VR as a result.

I'd raise the question, what about when they get used to seeing 180 surround vision?  Will they still be fooled the 10th time they are asked to step into the hole?  I'd predict that they won't just as they weren't compelled by the magic of the 10th place they'd looked at in Google Earth as much as they were by the first (which was, of course, the roof of their house).  So I'd argue that immersion is the novelty of a new medium that is closer to reality than the media you're used to and that the novelty wears thin quickly.  Lasting impressions are due to quality content rather than the media: reading the words that make up Hamlet is an immersive experience.

So what is VR good for?  I've clearly argued that VR isn't going to be an iPhone technology that dramatically changes the way we live.  However, predicting how a technology is going to develop is clearly foolish - crystal balls don't work.  I tend to think it is more like the microwave, important without being key but, having said that, its impact could be somewhere between the two.  I do predict its going to revolutionize gaming - immersion is such a strong draw in this case.  I also think there are some educational applications for VR in situations where you have to see the wide picture before homing in on detail; examples would be paramedics presented with a crash scene having to triage which patients to treat first and geologists being presented with a cliff section having to find a certain small scale geological feature.  There could be a 'killer app' use we haven't foreseen but I'm not convinced: as a technology it doesn't add to the content because we 'see' mostly through our fovea not the outer zone of our retinas and the immersion effect will only last as long as the novelty does.