Tuesday, December 22, 2009

GEarth Tours: Power first, Usability second

The most interesting thing I learnt last week at AGU was about the strategy Google adopted with tours. The Googler who built tours told me they were aiming for power in the first release rather than making them very usable. That explains the current situation where you can easily create a simple tour (my tutorial) , where complex tours which control the timeline and animate objects are possible (see latest Google Tour below)




but where producing such involved tours is very complicated because you have to write KML code directly. I suspect this means that Google are going to work on making tours much more user friendly in the future, as per the positive characteristics I noted about ArcGIS Explorer (AGX).

In my experience people get very excited about the possibilities of technology in teaching and often the benefits aren't realised because teachers are over optimistic about the difficulties and what can be achieved but I predict students will love producing complex presentations based on GEarth tours, it's going to be great.


Friday, December 18, 2009

AGU, Tutorial Use and Harrower on Icons





I'm just about to come home from the AGU conference. Its been really worthwhile making the trip, a lot of people I bumped into were complimentary about this blog which is good to hear as blogging is quite a solitary experience a lot of the time. An unexpectedly high number of people have also been complimentary about my tutorials (includes links to older tutorials) and said they use them with their students. That's also really exciting to hear and gives me pause for thought about what else to publish in the future.

I have lots of thoughts, links and ideas the conference which will go into blog posts in the near future, however a gem of a link was given to me by Andrew Turner; Cartography 2.0 is an online text book about developing interactive maps by Mark Harrower. I've just had a quick first read about user interfaces (UIs) and it's well worth devoting 10 minutes to. Most people developing maps won't be building UIs which is a fair bit of the discussion but his comments on icon design and his respect for 'Don't make me think!' by Krug are spot on.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Google Earth Tour User Test

This is the PowerPoint of the talk I'm giving at AGU today about user testing of Google Earth tours.

I tried to get it in a more friendly format but the flash version lost the notes.

I'm going to try and video myself doing it as well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Free Climate Change Data?

Ed Parsons has written a post about making Global warming data free for the public. He makes the point:
"Unfortunately people have lost confidence is both politicians and I’m afraid scientists to provide unbiased analysis of data on Climate Change, perhaps we now need to better educate people as to how to look at climate change data themselves"
I'm not sure about 'lost confidence in scientists' but lets leave that for another day. I totally agree that releasing machine readable data is good for society as a whole (with some ethical exceptions) and I also agree with Ed that educating the public about climate change is crucial in the coming years. Ed continues:
"and to make this data available without spin or interpretation so that people can make their own minds up."
He then goes on to discuss EDGAR, a project to make geotagged emission data freely available. He ends:
"And before any climate scientists out there claim that this is ridiculous and that the general public cannot be expected to deal with such complex tools and concepts, ask a surveyor or cartographer if they expected that the general public would be building the only detailed global digital maps a few years ago ?"
The General Public and Complex Tools: I don't think Ed's analogy holds water. It's relatively easy for me to walk out of my front door, turn on a GPS, map some roads and upload that data to OSM to help 'build detailed global digital maps', because a knowledgeable community thought up the initiative and provided the framework by which data could be added (Muki's post expands this idea). In the same way, I can view visualisations of global warming data in Google Earth because scientists have collected data, processed it and worked out the best way to present it. I find it hard to believe 'bedroom scientists' will have the skills to do the same task. You only have to look at the EDGAR website to appreciate the skills and knowledge necessary. I have an MSc in Earth Science and I don't know details such as relative contributions of different global warming gases (e.g. methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) or whether CO2 from forest fires should be included and if not, how do you take it out of the calculation.


Part of the screen shot Ed used in his post

Climate Change in Google Earth: GEarth is a fantastic tool to inform the public about climate change issues but IMHO its not a lack of raw data that's the main problem, I think its a lack of understanding about GeoWeb usabilty. You need go no further than the screen shot Ed provides to see this in the EDGAR visualisation*:
  • They've failed to show what the units are in the key
  • They've used a palette of colours that is difficult to view if you are green/red colour blind
  • They're showing global data on a Virtual globe - I can't compare the map of Australia with the UK in the same view.
All this gets in the way of what would otherwise be a very compelling story.

Putting my Money where my Mouth is: In a couple of weeks I'm going to present and help chair the Virtual Globes session at AGU , my paper will be on best practices in using Google Earth tours to communicate science (including climate change) to the public. More of that later of course...

*It may be someone in EDGAR has just thrown the data into GEarth as an experiment in which case my criticisms are a little unfair - I have no evidence this is a published project and I don't know what other materials are in the project apart from the screen shot. I *really* want to encourage them to publish on Google Earth and using other GeoWeb tools, I think they have a great story to tell but I'd advise they think about usability before they do.






Friday, November 27, 2009

Osprey Tracking in Google Earth

Screen Shot of the Lock Garten Osprey Project looking east over the west European coast

Recently I was talking to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) about their work with Google Earth. They've produced an interesting blog, map and Google Earth file for following the progress of migrating Ospreys that spend summer in Loch Garten. I think its a very good use of Google Earth and maps so deserves some promotion.

Suggested Improvements: There are some easy improvements that they could make. For example, they instruct you to set up a network link. It's easier just to include a network link in a KMZ file as I've done here:

They could also produce a tour, I've produced one in the KMZ file above (and below), its pretty basic but you get the idea of what could be done. They could also think of putting the project in a plugin as below:


Use of plugins has obvious advantages but there are also some drawbacks as I've discussed here.

My final suggestion would be to produce time slider functionality, it would be nice to be able to animate the animal tracks in time as in this whale shark project. If you're not used to operating the timeline see notes*

I was told they get an 'insane number of hits' to the blog already so I think developing the Google Earth part of idea further would be worthwhile.

*To get the whale track to animate, load the file and find the time slider in the top left corner of the GEarth screen. If you roll your mouse over it you will see two sliders, drag the left one to the left so they separate slightly and then drag the right one around to animate the track. The big red cross and little red cross show links to images that are now broken, however, the animation still works enough that you can get the idea of what's possible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

2D Maps vs 3D Visualisation

Via the ever readable Mark Harrower of Axis Maps* I find that Ed Parsons has been discussing cartography. Part of Mark's post:

"Ed Parsons dislikes Cartographers 'more than anyone in the World'

The title was one of the opening statements made by Google’s “technology evangelist” Ed Parsons in a recent talk for the British Computer Society. In the talk he argues traditional street maps are bad (all of them) because they fail to engender a sense of place and because they abstract the world using map symbols. He goes on to say Streetview is good and doesn’t suffer any of these problems. So is Google Earth. The take-home message is that 2D is bad! Maps symbols are bad! Photos are good! And paper is bad! [subtext: Google doesn't make paper, but if we did, we might soften our stance].

Here is my concern: I’m not aware of any research to support such simplistic claims...."

Provocative Ed: If you watch the talk you'll see that Ed admits he is being deliberately provocative and that he didn't know someone was going to video him so I take his comments with a pinch of salt . However, he does advocate the use of 3D visualisation over traditional 2D symbolization with phrases like:

"[a paper style map is] caught up in old cartography that doesn't give you a sense of space"

So its an opinion worth discussing, to do that we need to start with a wider view of technology.




Manic Miner, watch at your peril....

The GeoWeb is not necessarily a Destructive Technology: Ed's argument relies on 3D spatial tools (like streetview, Google Earth topography) being ‘destructive technologies’. For example on slide 22 (the video FF controls don't seem to work) he discusses an old ZX Spectrum game Manic Miner which only used 8 colors. He makes the point that although he (and I as it happens) enjoyed playing the game when we were young, no teenager now would touch it as its outclassed by todays games with millions of colors. His argument is that static paper maps are similarly going to disappear because the GeoWeb is a destructive technology. However, not all novel technologies are destructive, the arrival of VHS players in homes seriously dented cinema takings in the 80s but people are still going to cinemas to see films today. In the same way I suspect paper maps are going to survive as useful tools for a while yet despite more people getting smart phones that show 3D spatial tools. For example, a paper underground map of London for tourists has the following advantages; ultra light, requires no batteries, highly usable, requires no wifi and can be easily scribbled upon.



Video Showing Augmented Reality on a Smart Phone


Augmented Reality vs 2D Google Maps: Ed anchors the discussion as being about 3D spatial tools vs paper maps. I think this is a misleading framing of the question, paper is not interactive which is a serious disadvantage but that doesn’t mean interactive 2D maps will disappear. I propose a more relevant question: Is 3D augmented reality (AR) necessarily better than a 2D map with symbols? For example, if my iPhone had AR I could leave London Waterloo, hold it up and it would show the camera view with overlay labels of cafes I might like to go to to get a coffee. If my chosen cafe was hidden from view down a street is AR better for planning the route to get there than the existing 2D Google Map with cafe icons? I don’t know the answer so I agree with Mark that I want to see research results before I’ll believe any claims. However, I do think that deciding when to use 2D or 3D is dependant on context and I do know of research that suggests that in many situations the old style 2D map will be better as I outline below.

2D is Hardwired into your brain: Children were tested on how successful they were finding a hidden toy in a room. To help them they were either shown a photograph showing the location of the toy marked or a scale 3D model which also had the toy visible inside it. The kids were better at finding the toy in the real room when shown the photo (Marzolf and DeLoache, 1997). Fascinating isn't it? The researchers explanation was that kids are 'preprogrammed' to understand that 2D photos represent objects but they have difficulty identifying symbols in a 3D model in the same way. The logical conclusion is that 2D maps may offer a faster way to comprehend certain spatial relationships than the kind of 3D representation we see in GEarth, Streetview or AR because we are hardwired to understand 2D symbols better than 3D ones.

I Love 3D: That being said, Streetview is hugely useful in certain situations, I used streetview to preview neighbourhoods when I was flat hunting recently and it performed excellently. Also, I can’t wait to get AR tools on my iPhone.

Conclusion: I agree with Mark’s opinion that Ed’s discussion was too simplistic and he should back up his claims with user testing. I suspect that such user research will show that although AR looks cool, in lots of situations a 2D map representation with symbols will be better.

*I have just recently quoted his blog post about problems with thematic maps in GEarth in a research bid document

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Climate Change Tours: Elephants

Screenshot from Save the Elephants Climate Change Tour

Recently I reviewed the introductory GEarth tour on the Climate Change in Google Earth site. I thought it was interesting in a number of ways but thought that they had tried to do too much in a short time. I've also discussed the use of video and Google Earth on the site here.

Last Mali Desert Elephants: I've looked at some of the 'sub tours' on the same site (click elephant icon to view) and IMHO they work better than the introduction. The Mali Elephants tour is done in collaboration with Save the Elephants and describes what that charity does to support elephants in Mali and how climate change is affecting them. Here are some quick notes:

Pros:
  • Quality Commentary: The voice over is professionally done.
  • Lovely Story: The narrative for the tour is very good, they tell an excellent spatial story with good photos. The photos are static rather than moving around too much which is a criticism I made of the introductory tour.
  • Sprint: At one point the tour explains that an elephant, being freed from a waterhole sprinted to be back with her family. There is a trail marking her route that they obtained through GPS and it works well in GEarth.
  • Others Minor Pro points: Nice referral screen at the end to their main web page, Pace was good, they used annotations to lead the eye to the right area on screen.
Cons:
  • Unexplained Pink Areas: At one point the areas the elephants range is being discussed and pink areas appear on screen. Firstly, 100% pink is too intense, they should have reduced the opacity. Secondly, I was left confused about what the areas actually showed, it needed explicit explanation from the audio track.
  • Unreadable Labels: When showing the surface water in the area the labels cannot be read.
  • Scale: When viewing desert in Google Earth users have no way of judging distance, a scale bar with a reference in the commentary would have helped users get a sense of the huge distances the elephants are covering.
Extra Stuff: I would have liked to have seen them animate the track of the elephants so we could see them moving, animation is very engaging as a visualization tool.

But overall good work, well done Google and especially Save the Elephants!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

New Tutorials For GEarth v5

I'm pleased to announce the end of a project I have been working on since the start of summer: A new set of tutorials for GEarth v5. I tested them out on some teachers recently and got excellent feedback, excuse me for blowing my own trumpet about that but I can't help being chuffed. If you're interested in having a look this is the first 3 of 11 chapters and the supporting materials.

What's Good about the New Tutorials:
  • Cool Outputs Straight Away: Within half an hour I have my students successfully putting a video in a placemark pop up balloon and producing their first tour. Rather than take them through all the basics (placemarks, polygons, lines) before letting them do 'cool' things I show them how easy it is to produce rich, complex content with Google Earth early on.
  • As Tutor I take responsibility for the learning, unlike other tutorials there is no need to worry what is important to learn, I have made those decisions for the student. I think students prefer this to open ended learning where they have weaker guidance what they need to learn.
  • Supporting KMZ materials: The tutorials come with real GEarth content which students work on. This format allows me pre-process the materials so they can concentrate on the learning outcome. For example, if I want them to draw a Polygon on an island the tutorial instructs them to open a KMZ file which instantly flies them to the right location rather than having to navigate to it manually.
  • GeoWeb Design: Unlike other tutorials I don't just explain how to change the color of an icon, I cover design principles too so that users understand what color to choose. I'm careful not to produce separate design teaching from the main HowTo content, its all mixed together- separate out design bits and users are likely to skip them. In my experience, they are focused on learning the skills rather than the principles.
  • Modular Design: The tutorials are modular (in education jargon: Learning Objects) so you can tackle one about how to produce polygons in Google Earth without having done the one about basic navigation, although they do logically follow on from each other. This not only gives me flexibility in putting together packages for different groups it allows me to add in customised content, so a set of teachers could learn how to produce a tour with the normal content and then tackle a customised section of the tutorials where they are asked to produce a lesson plan involving the tour functionality.
  • Paper format: The tutorials are designed to be printed out, this means students can easily look from instructions (paper) to screen - video or web based format means the student has to manage windows on screen. I've also found that students have a sense of ownership of a manual - its theirs to keep and scribble on - they just don't have that with a website tutorial.
  • Instill Confidence: One of my aims in teaching is to instill confidence in students to encourage them to be able to go off and build their own resources. I was pleased to see explicit comments saying I had achieved from the feedback forms given to school teachers in my recent teaching session. Unfortunately, part of this confidence comes from my teaching so you may not pick this up from just looking at the tutorials.
Unlike my former tutorials (see below), I'm not publishing all of these. They're designed to be customised so if you're interested in getting some training in producing maps with GEarth get in touch and we can discuss costs. I am already using them in face to face mode but there are website and web conferencing options I can offer. If you're desperate to get some training and have no access to funds I list some options for you below.

My Old Tutorials: This isn't the first set of tutorials about Google Earth I have produced, in the past I've published;

  • 'Kokae.com' (www.kokae.com itself is inactive): Video tutorials for GEarth v3 on how to produce a map in GEarth
Other Tutorials: I'm also not the only person producing tutorials, here are the other resources I rate;
  1. The official Google Earth User Guide
  2. Google Earth Outreach have produced a really good set of tutorials
  3. Jamie Buchan-Dunlop has produced a set of manuals in conjunction with Google

13 Nov 09:
Added cc licence after a query: Please apply this licence to the tutorial files.

Creative Commons License
Google Earth Tutorials by Richard Treves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License
Google Earth Tutorials by Richard Treves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Google Maps: Deteriorating Interface?

Muki Hacklay ruminates on Google Maps and Earth interfaces. He has a number of good points, firstly the quality of the original interface:
"In terms of usability, the slippy map increased the affordability of the map with direct manipulation functionality for panning, clear zoom operating through predefined scales, the use of as much screen assets for the map as possible, and the iconic and simple search box at the top. Though the search wasn’t perfect (see the post about the British Museum test), overall it offered a huge improvement in usability. It is not surprising that it became the most popular web mapping site and the principles of the slippy map are the de facto standard for web mapping interaction. "
He then goes on to note a pet hate about street view:

"However, in recent months I couldn’t avoid noticing that the quality of the interface has deteriorated. In an effort to cram more and more functionality (such as the visualisation of the terrain, pictures, or StreetView), ease of use has been scarificed. For example, StreetView uses the icon of a person on top of the zoom scale, which the user is supposed to drag and drop on the map. It is the only such object on the interface, and appears on the zoom scale regardless of whether it is relevant or available. When you see the whole of the UK for example, you are surely not interested in StreetView, and if you are zooming to a place that wasn’t surveyed, the icon greys out after a while. There is some blue tinge to indicate where there is some coverage, but the whole interaction with it is very confusing. It’s not difficult to learn, though."


I see what he's driving at but I don't really share his dislike of this feature. Sure, its an oddity but its immediately obvious how to work the functionality. I'm also happy with seeing it at all scales - sometimes I want a high level view of where streetview is available to know if I can use it in an area. On the topic of too much functionality I also wonder if the public now is so used to the basic controls (zoom, pan, slippy map, search) that it isn't much of an issue adding more functionality? Of course, it does add to screen clutter. One feature of GMaps I really don't like is the little circle above peg mans head. What does that do? Why is it there?

Muki then goes on to discuss Google Earth interface:
"There are similar issues with Google Earth – compare versions 4 and 5 in terms of ease of use for novice users, and my guess is that most of them will find 4 easier to use. The navigation both above the surface and at surface level is anything but intuitive in version 5. While in version 4 it was clear how to tilt the map, this is not the case in 5."
Here I totally agree with him. The controls in GE5 are complex and behave in odd ways. I bypass them completely when teaching about GEarth and teach people the mouse controls (Click and drag to pan, click mouse wheel and drag to rotate around a location and alter tilt, roll mouse wheel to zoom in and out). GE4 controls were much better.

On a related topic, I've talked about the usability of the layers panel in GE before

I share Muki's wish that Google don't lose sight of the value of simplicity, functionality is good but a complex interface can be unusable.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Climate Change Tours by Google: Review


This is my second post discussing the Google Earth tours which promote the Climate Change summit at Copenhagen by Google. My earlier post discussed how they used video clips instead of GEarth plugin tours here. The introductory video tour is narrated by Al Gore and there are 3 additional tours with more to follow, in this post I'll discuss just the introductory tour. I was excited to see these tours as I think using Google Earth is an excellent tool to communicate climate change science to the public (as I said in this talk).

Count the Ball passes: Before I start the review I want to make a point about attention and motion. If you haven't seen the 'count the number of basketball passes' test before watch this video and try and count the number of passes made to people wearing white shirts. Reading anything below the embedded video is cheating!:



How many were there? You're very clever. Did you notice anything else about the video? If not watch it again. The point is that in any view where multiple bodies are moving its very difficult to keep track of anything that you haven't been directed to watch. So most people viewing the video miss seeing the Gorilla walking across the screen even though under normal circumstances they would do so. For more detail on attention see no. 8 on PsyBlog. This inability to split our attention is a relevant point for our discussion as you will see.

"Confronting Climate Change" tour Review:
I felt the tour used some GEarth tools in a smart way but tried to cover too much in the time available, they may have done better to have removed some sections and cover the remaining content in more detail.

Pros:
  • Excellent Commentary: Having Al Gore narrate the tours adds to their value, it carries real cachet to have him do this.
  • Good References: There are numerous footnote references to the data that was used to put together the tour. Always good to see.
  • Innovative Timeline Use: They make innovative use of the timeline - I haven't seen many tours where the authors use the timeline this much. Combining the timeline and tours has the potential to be very powerful and its used here on some data that is excellent for timeline animation (e.g. melting of the Greenland icecap)
  • Explicitly Mentioning Pause: They explicitly show users how to pause the tour and encourage people to do this. This is a very neat use of tour.
  • Tour tab control: The thumbnail icons and titles to control which tour plays are useful controls.
Cons:
  • Moving Images: The tour starts with multiple images depicting climate change moving across a spinning globe. There are too many moving objects for the user to keep track of - the point the gorilla video made. Compare to this GEarth tour done by CBS where they had static images appearing above a static globe, I think the CBS one is much better.
  • Talk about what's on Screen: Towards the end of the tour the commentary doesn't relate directly to what is showing on screen: We are shown imagery of Kenya with the on screen text: "Kenya: Forest, water, Livelihoods" while Al talks about how we should "use this tool to get involved". This splits the user's attention, they don't know whether to follow the audio or visual communication and end up doing neither well. The Gorilla video is illustrates how important it is to avoid splitting attention.
  • Flights too Low and Quick: Many of the virtual flights in the tour are too quick and low for users to follow where they have been taken. Virtual flights should be looped i.e. to altitude and then back down low again and done at slower speed. This allows users to follow landmarks on screen, work out where they are and avoid becoming disorientated.
  • No annotation: At one point we are shown a time sequence of the Larsen ice shelf collapsing but it isn't clear which actual bit of the shelf is collapsing. The remedy would be to use an arrow or polygon annotation to guide the users eye to the right location. There are text annotations on the ground overlays during this part of the tour but they couldn't be read as they were too small and upside down. They should have been removed.
  • Bangladesh Scale: At 3.10 mins we are shown a view of Bangladesh flooding but because there are no landmarks it's very difficult to get a sense of the scale of the view. It needed an annotation to give a sense of scale, for example a line marking out 100 miles in distance on the ground. For an example see 30 seconds into the tour experiment I posted here where I use a 10 mile marker.
  • Antipodes Problem: One of the issues of virtual globes is that you can't see the whole world at once. At 1.32 mins into the tour an overlay is used that covers the whole globe and the globe is rotated to view how it looks. It would have been better to either use the new Google flash map API to show the world as a flat map projection and use the overlay on that or to only focus in on the changes of one part of the world as is done at 1.51 mins where the tour shows what is happening at the North pole.
  • Timeline Description: I have described this use of timeline feature as innovative, however, it was also confusing in the tour. If you are displaying a time sequence you have to describe it in the audio track so that users understand what they are seeing. We kept jumping about to different points on the time line with no proper explanation. Labels on screen were used to show the user what time the imagery related to but they weren't adequate because there was too much else going on in the view: The Gorilla effect yet again.

Climate change is the most important challenge facing humanity IMHO. GEarth is a wonderful tool to communicate the issue to the public but I think Google could improve the tours that they have yet to release.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Improving Color in Maps: Rivers of Blood



Google posted data about helping the victims of tropical storm Ketsana. This is great work, letting people see the problem in geographical context soon after the event.

Blue better for Water: However, I think the choice of colors used could be improved. They have used bright red to illustrate the flooded areas. While this attracts the eye to all the small areas its too intense for the large areas it covers. In addition, red doesn't work well to mark water cover, my first impression is that its a river of blood. Much better to choose a shade of blue and to make it translucent so you can see roughly what lies below it. To make the areas more noticeable I've outlined then in white. My version as a .kmz.

Annotation Adds Value: In looking at the data I noticed that most of the flooded areas are actually fields on free areas. Not much obvious housing seems to have been flooded. I've added a polygon which I've outlined in red and a placemark to show its location, double clicking the placemark will take you to the area of interest where there has been some housing flooded. This sort of annotation adds value to the data and encourages people to explore more for themselves IMHO.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Remembering maps and names

I have an embarassing memory for names. Not only am I always forgetting names at social events, I lose hours noodling around trying to remember who wrote a certain article so I can reference it. However, I have got a better than average spatial memory. Drop me in a city I've not been in for 10 years and I can guess my way around.

So I found it interesting to read John Naughton can remember entire layouts of golf courses from his youth, as could Sam Beckett. John was so taken by the idea this week he even made a google map of the course he first played on:
http://memex.naughtons.org/archives/2009/10/14/9149

A fun read.

-- From My iPhone

Friday, October 9, 2009

Climate Change Tours by Google



Close followers of this blog may have spotted that my favourite application of Google Earth and the GeoWeb more generally is advocating action on climate change. So I'm excited to see that Google (and it seems to be my friends in Google Outreach) have released a series of tours to publicise the Copenhagen talks on climate change. I've pasted in the introductory video above.

They first published the site just as tours in the Google Earth plugin. However, I notice that they have now changed the web page to show YouTube videos of the GEarth tours with links to view the tours in Google Earth. I guess that this was because they looked at the hit logs and discovered a significant proportion of hits were from people who didn't have the Google Earth plugin and that these people then left rather than wait to download it and view the tours.

Whether this is the case or not I thought it worth discussing the pros and cons of publishing a Google Earth tour as a video rather than within Google Earth.

Pros:
  1. No GE plugin: Avoid losing users who don't have the GEarth plugin installed
  2. Downloading Elements: In a GEarth tour its possible for the tour to play without a model (say) downloading properly, this leads to the model not rendering properly the first play through. In a video you avoid this.
  3. Simple Controls: Very simple controls to work a video that most users understand, in GEarth complex controls may confuse users
Cons:
  1. More hassle to produce: you do the tour and then have to record it and upload it in the right format etc. etc. HowTo video a tour.
  2. Editing Problems: If you want to edit the tour you have to re-record the whole tour and repeat any video processing you did, in GEarth you just edit and upload again.
  3. Exploring Impossible: In Google Earth you can pause a tour and let people explore themselves. This isn't possible in a video. More detail on this idea in this post.
Video if you expect lots of Hits: I think the major influence on choice is about the audience size you expect. If you are expecting lots of users its probably worth recording the tour as a video as you get all the pros while you can live with the cons as they apply to the author, not the user. The exception to this is con [3].

Best of Both Worlds: In fact what Google have done is a bit of both worlds, they've provided the videos on the landing page and link through to tours within Google Earth. A nice solution but, of course, it takes more time to put together.

More Commentary coming: I have written a review of the tours already but since they've gone and changed them it will need redoing, I'll publish it soon.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Export KML from Google My Maps

I really like Google My Maps - its possible to produce a map without needing a PC powerful enough to run Google Earth. However, if you try and get your data out (to edit further in GEarth say or mashup with other data) you are linked to a network link. This opens the data in Google Earth and will automatically update any change to your Google My Map but isn't any use if you want to extract your data - it stays on Google's servers.

Barry Hunter explains a workaround here. Thanks Barry!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Loop Links in Google Earth


Screen shot from 'Map the Fallen' Project
Sometimes in GEarth we want to visualize a connection between one place and another, a line looping between the two places is a good way of doing this as used by the 'Map the Fallen' project shown in the screen shot above.

To produce a loop:
  1. Download this Excel spreadsheet file
  2. Produce 2 placemarks where you want the ends of the loop to be.
  3. Right click the first and select properties. Copy the Latitude and Longitude of the placemark into the yellow boxes of the 'Start' row of the spreadsheet.
  4. Reapeat 3 but for the second placemark and put in the 'End' row
  5. Select the 'Out' tab at the bottom of the sheet and copy the text in the cell with the text in.
  6. Select the temporary places folder in GEarth by clicking it > right click > paste
  7. Your loop should appear
  8. Right click it > Properties > Style Color tab to change its look.
Design Points:
  • Details on how to color and choose the right thickness for lines in this lines Video I did a while back.
  • I think you have to be very careful not to use too many lines at one time so as not to overwhelm the user.
  • Loops would be a great way of showing a one to many relationship, i.e. the place of manufacture of the parts that go to make up a laptop connected to the factory where they all assembled.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Google Earth Layers

Interesting comment from Frank on Google Earth Blog:

"One of the weakest areas of Google Earth is its layer interface. Mostly due to the fact that it is not easy to find layers without opening lots of folders. If Google would just add "search" to the layers pane things would get much better. An option to memorize certain favorite layer sets would be another improvement. There's so much information available in the layers, but my perception is that few people discover whats hidden there."
Couldn't agree more.

I also worry that even when someone opens a layer, they may not realise that they have to fly down before anything will appear. I discuss this properly here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tour and Activity

Screenshot of the Experimental Tour

I had a discussion the other day with a bunch of Googlers from Google Outreach about a research project I'm planning. Its about GEarth tours and in the course of kicking around the idea we came to the joint conclusion that tours had a great capacity for showing people material and then getting them to explore on their own informed by what you've just shown them. I liked the idea so as an experiment (excuse the balloon formatting and lack of polish) I've produced an example on the back of something else I'm working on. It takes you through some educational material about interpreting landscapes and then gives you a constrained task. A key part of the presentation is the use of pauses within the tour.

Technical Notes:
  • The image prompting you to press play that appears in the bottom left of the screen is useful as its a signal that you've paused in the tour
  • By using the plugin I can turn off all the unwanted layers such as roads, boundaries and just leave the terrain on. This works well for this particular content.
Educational Notes:
  • Audio would work a lot better here than the text, there are specific reasons why I've not used audio that I won't go into.
  • Getting students to do activities is a well proven technique of improving learning. When a GEarth tour is paused you can fly anywhere to explore, clicking play again takes you back to where you left the tour and then the tour continues. This ability is what I use in this experiment to provide an activity.
  • A nice extension of the idea would be to pause the tour showing students several placemarks which they have to navigate around and then choose between the placemarks. Clicking the placemark would tell them if they're wrong or right. For example: you could explain the basics of where to find groundwater in Africa using a GEarth tour then provide some placemarks that represent sample borehole sites . Clicking the placemarks would give them feedback on whether they'd selected the best site to drill to find groundwater.



Monday, September 14, 2009

San Francisco Crime Map: Review

San Francisco Interactive Crime Map by Stamen Design

Stamen design have produced a very high quality crime map of San Francisco. At heart its a mashup of crime stats and cloud made base maps but they've produced an innovative 'pie of time' controller with which you can select different crime at different times.

Pros:
Lots to love here:
  • Pie of Time: The 'pie of time' is highly intuitive and usable. You can choose any selection of hours in the day you wish or use obvious short cuts to choose obvious time slices such as 'day', 'night', 'commute'. It scores much higher than the GEarth timeline controller (previous discussion) although it doesn't animate time so its not completely comparing like with like.
  • Date Chooser: The pie of time also works with a highly usable date range or date chooser control at the bottom. A nice touch I noticed was that there is an indication of data downloading when you change the range of time, something I think GEarth doesn't handle well.
  • Cloud Made Tiles: I'm impressed with the background tiles by cloud made, nicely subtle so as not to detract from the data.
  • Layer Control: Is simple and the semi transparency is a nice touch.
  • Rollover: At first sight I like the rollover behaviour which highlights other points in the same category as the one your mouse is lying over but I'd really want to see how it scored in usability testing: It could confuse low skill level IT users.
Cons:
  • Icons: I'm really surprised that given the amount of thought that has gone into the rest of this map that point icons are marked with letters rather than graphics. For example, a hypodermic syringe for narcotics and a bottle for alcohol crimes would be instantly recognisable and much more memorable.
Previous post praising Stamen Design

Thursday, September 3, 2009

CBC Google Earth Tour of Afghanistan: Review


Via a Google Earth blog post I came across this tour by CBC shown in the screenshot above. Its a good example of a news agency trying out the ability to use the Google Earth plugin to add value to a topic with a strong geographic flavour. There is a lot of potential in doing this and I'd want to encourage CBC and other news agencies to produce similar tours. However, I think they could improve what they've done by really using the geographic capabilities of GEarth. Some specific thoughts:

Pros:
  • Thematic maps: I liked the use of thematic maps to show the general locations of the countries. Just plotting things on the background data of GEarth can be difficult to understand because the imagery is visually 'busy'.
  • Fading Images: The authors took the time to code in the images to fade in and out which looks slick and professional
  • Professional Audio: The audio to go with the tour was good quality and professionally done.
  • Background story: I felt the tour added useful background to the Afghanistan war story, e.g. I liked the detail about the historic buildings in Herat
Cons:
  • No Introductory Logo: As Frank pointed out to me recently, an introductory screen logo helps viewers focus on what they're about to get and who is telling them the story. That being said, they do get their logo in at the end.
  • More Fly Throughs: At one point the tour refers to 'wind swept mountains' but the camera doesn't sweep through a sample mountainous valley to show us. The ability to do this is where GEarth really shines
  • Ground instead of Screen Overlay: Although I liked the overview thematic maps, the authors used a screen overlay rather than locating the map on the ground as a ground overlay. This would have been better as features in GEarth would have been related to the boundaries of the map.
  • Areas not Points: At one point the tour refers to 'Helmand province' but we aren't shown the boundary to this area on screen we just see Helmand city as a point, a province is clearly an area not a point. More detail on the general point of polygons vs placemarks in Google Earth in my Google Tech talk.
Producing GEarth tours with lots of photos and syncing with an audio commentary isn't easy. I think its a shame that having put in a lot of work to produce this they didn't use GEarth's capabilities to a greater extent. I think they ended up producing something that represents more of an audio image slideshow rather than really using the capabilities of GEarth tours. To see if you agree with me compare their tour to:
I've contacted CBC to see if they had any comments on this review, I didn't hear anything from them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Creating Tours HowTo 3: Adding Audio

This is the third part of a series on creating tours: Part 1(Simple Tour), Part 2 (Adding Elements)

Adding an audio commentary:
Once a tour has been produced you can add an audio commentary recording over the original as described in this Google Outreach tutorial. Adding audio in this way is easy but the quality of the commentary can be improved if you write a script. The work flow I've evolved to do this:
  1. Record a tour without audio as in the 'Adding Elements HowTo'. Don't add any placemark text notes and save it to the places column.
  2. Run through the tour recording how long each segment of the tour takes. A segment could be something like the flight from a high view of the UK down to a view of the Houses of Parliament.
  3. Work out exactly what you will say in the time the segment takes. E.g. 'now we fly down to view the Houses of Parliament', test your words to see they fit the time slot.
  4. Repeat from [2] each segment of the tour to build up a script to use in recording the audio commentary.
  5. Set the tour playing but then click the record audio tour button as described in the Google Outreach tutorial. Google Earth will play your original audio free tour and record you reading out your script as well.
  6. You may find you don't get the audio correct first time even when you've worked out a script. In this case close the tour dialogue at the bottom of the screen with the cross then double click the tour in the places column and have another go. When you're happy, click the disc icon in the tour dialog to save the tour.
Editing a Tour: Just as you can add audio to a tour using the Google Earth client, you can also add extra sections to it (scroll down the tutorial page to learn how). I don't advise doing this, you can add to a tour but it isn't possible to edit parts of the tour (e.g. change the view) or delete sections without getting into XML editing. Not being able to properly edit a tour limits the use of being able to add extra sections. Another Virtual Globe (ArcGIS Explorer) has added the ability to edit tours in this way (although in Explorer they are called presentations), so I'm optimistic we will see this ability in GEarth soon.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ArcGIS Explorer 900: First Look

ESRI have released ArcGIS Explorer (hereafter 'AGE') I'd heard that it has a 'presentation' system like GEarth's tour so I dived in and had a look. In the rest of this post when I refer to presentation I am talking about AGE's system, when I talk about tour, I'm referring to GEarth's system. These are some first notes concentrating mostly on the presentation facility.

Download Problems, PC only:
First up I needed to install .NET 2.0 and a server pack to get the program installed. That will have put a lot of newbies off if it is a common need. Oh, and its for PCs only. Grrrr.

Slide Metaphor for Presentations: AGE has adopted a slide metaphor for presentations, so it becomes more like a powerpoint presentation rather than a movie clip, tours follow a movie clip metaphor. Importantly this makes editing a presentation much easier than editing a tour users. Here's some other notes:

Presentation Pros:
  • Thumbnails: The slides are represented as thumbnails making it much easier to locate where you are in a presentation than when editing than wading through kml code to edit a tour.
  • Move, Delete, Recapture: Just as with powerpoint you can move and delete slides. You can also recapture a slide if there's something you want to change on it.
  • Layer Controls Robust: I have had problems with the robustness of GEarth tours when handling layers (turning placemarks on/off etc). After a few experiments, I haven't managed to fault AGE on this.
  • Titles: Slides have a title feature which you can use to put a title at the head of a slide view, it has some nice formatting controls as well.
  • Next/Previous controls: Instead of play, AGE uses next/previous buttons, very handy if you want to use it for a presentation. In a tour you would need to code this in as a pause. You can also have a continuous movie like presentation if you wish by setting the slide time to be 10 seconds.
  • Full Screen: In presentation mode AGE automatically flicks to full screen mode which is a nice touch.
  • PowerPoint Import: You can't directly import powerpoint into AGE but by exporting your powerpoint to .png files you can easily bring them in as what are termed screen overlays in GEarth. Editing control of screen overlays in AGE is much easier than in GEarth.
Cons:
  • Transition time: You can't control the time the transition takes from slide to slide
  • No audio record feature (a big disappointment)
  • Advanced features of tours such as animating models isn't possible (AFAIK)
Beyond presentations AGE has some other useful features I've noticed such as:
  • Base maps: A variety of base maps is available
  • Data Types: The ability to pull in multiple data types (Arc GIS, KML, Arc GIS online and others)
  • Contextual Help: Contextual help is available when you rollover items in the ribbon.
  • 4.2 Controller: AGE controller looks a lot like the old GEarth 4.2 controller which many (including yours truly) prefer to the new 5.0 controller.
However its lagging behind GEarth in many features such as:
  • Time control
  • Historical imagery
  • Quality of imagery (from my brief flights around),
  • Imagery Streaming Speed
  • Google Ocean
  • Google Planets
  • Flight Simulator
Summary: I think this is a very interesting entry in the Virtual Globe market. I think they've recognized that a vital feature (maybe the killer app?) of Virtual Globes is tours/presentations and they're ahead of GEarth in this respect at the moment by making presentations easy to edit and put together. However, all the advantages of GEarth mean I won't be abandoning it just yet.

Relates To:
  • My review of Snoovel which is trying to make GEarth tours more editable.
  • My lazyweb request for a graphical editor for tours in which I suggested that a slide metaphor for tours would be a good idea.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Personal Website Update

Whilst things are relatively quiet at work I've been updating my personal website. Its now got video talks, details of my publications and I've added some more of my project details.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Eddie Iz Running Via Google Earth

Eddie Iz Running Tour: Click to Play and Turn Speakers On!

Eddie Izzard is a popular English Comedian, he's doing an amazing 40 marathons back to back for charity around the UK. He's tweeting, taking photos and reporting his position as he goes so since its for charity, I got the material together and put it into GEarth and produced an audio tour.

Quality and Platform: The quality of the tour and the materials are a bit rough and ready (I need to get a better mic!) because I'm limited in time on this project but I hope it puts the idea across that a trip or expedition can be excellently presented using the GeoWeb as the main platform. I've discussed this before in the context of a trip Stephen Fry took.

Twitter and Maps: All the materials in the tour were manually collated by myself but tweets/photos can be automatically put in a map as in this non-official site (that appeared after I'd started work on this).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brahmaputra Lesson Plan Update

Screen Shot of Tour. Click to Play, NB: Uses Audio

Over the last week or so I've been updating a lesson plan I published last year to use the new tour facility in GEarth. The above is an audio tour to show what the lesson plan is about.

New Materials: Download from my personal website under 'Brahmaputra Flooding....'. Features include:
  • NEW Delivered via tours making use much simpler for the teacher
  • Helpful notes on how to use GEarth for Newbie teachers
  • Ideas for extension exercises for students
  • Links human and physical geography considering effects of global warming
In the materials I've produced tours which use pauses rather than audio, the idea is that the teacher plays the tour and when it pauses describes/discusses with the class what is shown on screen - rather like a powerpoint where slide transistions are replaced by GEarth flights. I used the new material for a global warming conference to a 6th form I did in December and it worked extremely well.

Design Notes on the Lesson Files:
  • I added the 'press play to continue' screen overlay because I thought the user needed more visual feedback that the tour had paused/was playing.
  • I turn elements on and off in my tours more than most people seem to. I think its good practise to annotate tours to help guide the user's eye to where they should be looking.
  • I think the use of GEarth tours with pauses replaces the need for PowerPoint in this instance. Obviously it only works for certain situations but I know ESRI are developing even more tools to make other Virtual Globes more useful in presentations (you'll be able to import PowerPoint slides into their Virtual Globe)
Update 16:13, 12 Aug 09: Edited to include Frank's comments

Monday, August 10, 2009

3D in Flash API: Google Flat Earth

Recently I blogged about the need for a Google Flat Earth. Remarkably the Google people got right on it and2 days later they released 3d for 3D Perspective in the Maps API for Flash which makes it possible.

I've swept my drive in anticipation of the Ferrari I've now asked for :)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Creating Tours HowTo 2: Turning elements on and off

Screen Shot of the Goldman Prize tour

This is the second HowTo about tours of a 3 part set. It builds on Creating Tours HowTo 1, In this HowTo we learn how to turn elements on and off in a tour.

Adding Elements:
A more advanced tour than we previously discussed uses elements (e.g. placemarks, ground overlays, polygons) in the places column which are turned on and off to illustrate the topic of the tour. The Goldman prize example (screen shot above) plays in the Google Earth plugin, if you haven't got it there's a link to get the google earth file instead. It uses placemarks but you can use more sophisticated elements as in this Lake Chad Example which uses screen and ground overlays for text and to show the shrinking lake respectively.

To construct a tour turning elements on and off:
  1. Create a new empty folder (right click temporary places in your places column > Add > Folder). Name it something sensible.
  2. Copy the elements you want to appear in it from elsewhere in the places column (right click the element, then select copy, select your new folder, select paste) or create new elements within the folder.
  3. Untick any original elements you have just duplicated in their original location in the places column and all the elements in your new folder.
  4. Record the tour turning elements on and off but only from your new folder.
  5. When you have finished the tour click the stop button in the tour dialogue. The tour will play itself automatically but the elements will not appear as there's a bug. The workaround is to save the tour (floppy disk icon in the record dialogue bottom left of your screen), name it something sensible and then play it again - it should now work.
  6. Drag the tour element that you've just created in the places column into the new folder if it isn't there already.
  7. Make sure all the elements are turned off and save the new folder as a .kmz file (right click>Save As). Google Earth records the visibility of your placemarks when saving a .kmz so the tour will automatically open with the elements unselected, by doing this you avoid the problem mentioned in [4].
Why Use a Folder? Google Earth records your tour as a series of instructions, it will look for 'Placemark X' to turn on and off in your places column if this is included in your tour. By saving all the elements in a folder in this way we ensure they appear in the places column of your users so the tour will play properly.

The camera viewpoints discussed in the previous post can be used as before, but note that it is not necessary to save any camera viewpoint placemarks in the new folder, their location is stored in the tour part recording automatically of the KMZ. Removing them from the folder is good practices as it unclutters the view in the Places column.

Adding Text Notes: You can add placemark text notes to your tour by adding placemarks and opening them in a tour. For example, if I was producing a tour of the Southampton University campus I could mark the School of Geography building with a Placemark called 'Geography'. In the description I could add detail such as 'We run a successful program of Undergraduate, Masters level and continuing professional development courses'. In the tour I would fly to view the building, make the placemark appear by ticking its box in the places column. When the users had had time to register what the placemark's name is (a couple of seconds) I would then click it in the main screen to make the description appear.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

One People Review, Google Flat Earth?



Update 12.20pm: Frank points out that its worth watching the video in HD version if you have the band width to do so.


Back in June I reviewed a visualization of mobile (cell) calls around Washington on Obama's inauguration day. The visualization above comes from the same people (One People page).

Pros
  1. By using a flat projection of the Earth instead of a virtual globe the visualization avoids problems of countries being hidden by the curve in the earth.
  2. Translucent loops are sensibly used so that many loops can be rendered on the same screen
  3. The Base map is low contrast, this muted look allows the eye to concentrate on the loops
  4. The moving timeline graph illustration at the bottom of the screen adds lots of extra information in a digestible form.
Cons
  1. The base map could be simplified further than noted in pro #3, just one single color for land and cities as bright spots would be better. I'm not even sure what the current shading represents.
  2. The moving spots on the loops to illustrate call rates doesn't really work. I suspect a better scheme would have highly transparent and yellow color loops illustrating low call rates and highly opaque and red colored loops for high call rates (with mid transparency and orange shades for mid level call rates).
  3. There is no key or scale for the graph
Flat Earth: The most important point though is the use of a flat earth. Map the Fallen makes use of loops as do some other projects in Google Earth. At the risk of being labelled a flatearther I think the ability to flatten the globe sometime would be really useful, its a major problem with using thematic maps in virtual globes. Of course, a flat earth is what Google Maps already offers but it would be handy to be able to add loops, models, have topography and be able to add tour like functionality to Google Maps.

Convergence GMaps and GEarth: IMHO Google seem to be moving away from the GEarth client towards the GEarth API, which of course integrates closely with GMaps API. So I'll probably get my wish sometime soon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Placemark Clustering: GeoCubes and Barry Hunter

I've discussed clustering placemarks before but thought a revisit was in order since coming across Barry Hunter's work which is partly based on GeoCubes.


Since Barry develops the idea (with a neat little web form in a placemark which I like) from GeoCubes (design 1) I'll just comment on this GeoCubes visualization.

The visualization shows placemarks (it doesn't matter for this discussion what they represent) collated into square cells. The number of placemarks is visualized by a colored cube and a number written on the cube.

Pros:
  1. Clustering Need: You can't render thousands of placemarks on screen at any one time so they must be clustered in an easy to understand way. GeoCubes does this.
  2. Grid: In the cubes visualization shown placemarks are collated into a grid which is easily understood (other systems collate placemarks into areas where the boundaries are not known - much less comprehensible by the user)
  3. Placemarks and Visualization: When you fly into the screen the cubes dissolve to show the placemarks themselves. Thus you can find the exact location of a single placemark.
  4. It does all this automatically
Cons:
  1. Figures on screen distracting: The mind processes numbers serially but color in parallel so picking out all the numbers between 500-800 in the screenshot is slow but you can almost instantly identify the 7 orange squares. This is because the mind processes colours in parallel (try it for yourself). So it would be better to have the number text revealed by a mouse rollover or click but otherwise be invisible.
  2. Seamless Cubes: The size of the cubes shows the density of placemarks as well as the color of the cubes, it would be more useful if the cubes went all the way up to the boundary of the cell as then cells with the same density would merge into one seamless, color blob. Barry tells me the geocube guys are thinking about this already.
  3. More Intervals: The number of the placemarks per cell is split into 3 intervals ( 1-100, 101-1000, 1000+). It would be better to have a color blend with more intervals as more information would be immediately apparent (see parallel processing of colour in [1]). Good blends of colors can be gained by colorbrewer which I review here.
  4. Density vs Count: As you zoom in the cells split themselves into smaller cells so that the placemark count goes down. This causes a change of color in the cells but the density of the placemarks per square km hasn't changed. I think it would be better if the cell colour illustrated placemark density as the color would remain more constant. To see what I mean compare select design #1 at geocubes and zoom in. Compare that to zooming in on this pizza resturant map (only imagine at the lowest altitude the heat map dissolves and leaves just placemarks).
If you've been watching carefully you will see that if all the changes I suggest were put in place we would end up with pretty much 'My Solution' outlined in my original post.

Barry's response to the review was positive and he's thinking of producing an experiement in line with my suggestions. I hope that it happens!

Friday, July 17, 2009

ColorBrewer 2: Pick Colors for your map

In a previous post I pointed out that color brewer is a useful tool for choosing colors for your map. Well its been updated with added features, including easy export for ArcGIS. Yay! A welcome update to a useful, free and easy to use tool.

Feature request: When someone next works on this I'd love to see export for Google Earth - support all those naive geographers out there!

Color Blind Issue: I also wonder about the opt out nature of color blind blends - at the moment you are offered color blind unfriendly blends which you deselect by choosing a tick box that removes all color blind unfriendly blends. In the spirit of libertarian paternalism (yup, I read Nudge on holiday) I wouldn't want to stop people being able to access blends that are color blind unfriendly but wouldn't it be wise to make them available on an opt in basis? Make it so the blends are no longer available in the default selection but you can tick a box to access them?

I feel a bit mean grumbling so I think it important to add: this is a lovely tool that has been produced for free by a very smart team. Thank you all for your efforts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

GE Tour Editor: Snoovel



Via GEB I learnt of Snoovel, an answer to my lazy web suggestion that GE Tours would really be a lot easier to put together with a graphical editor. I've been in contact with Andy Schweiger from Snoovel about the development.

Pros: They've done some good things:
  1. Draggable Controls: the timeline has some advanced drag and drop and draggable boundaries to objects which is really helpful.
  2. Slick looking interface which is stylishly put together.
  3. Audio: Ability to add audio files is very useful. I have spent hours trying to hand code audio into tours and its a pain.

Cons: I have lots of little grumbles like the lack of a play head showing you where exactly you are on the timeline, but its a little unfair because this is a beta release. So I'll concentrate on some more fundamental issues:
  1. No ability to add or control KML content: Being able to turn Features on and off like Placemarks, Overlays, Screen Overlays and (especially) pop up Balloons is a key part of tours IMHO. Andy tells me that they plan to add this later but that there is an issue with the plugin then getting overloaded and crashing which users would then blame on Snoovel. Some kind of dash board indicator to show how overloaded the plugin is getting is the solution?
  2. No help files: Its disappointing that there's only a screencast to show you how to use the service. You may think this is forgivable since its a beta release - well that's a fair point but I think documentation is usually thought of only as an after thought in projects like this and its key to the usability of the service.
  3. Scenes and Points of Interest: The system Snoovel uses to control the look direction in the tour is to have what are termed camera views and to organise these into scenes. A scene is associated with a 'Point of Interest' (POI), Andy says this is to enable copying of scenes. I think users would be quite happy with copying scenes and from their point of view the POI just makes the process of producing a tour more complex.
Conclusion: Overall I think this a good service and I'm glad to see it out there, as Frank mentioned in his review, its the most sophisticated tour editor available to date. A good thing to experiment with if you're happy with beta versions, I look forward to seeing it develop.