Urthecast, a Canadian company, plans to install HD cameras on the ISS to provide an almost-live-stream of the Earth as seen from space, with a resolution of 1 metre and a time-delay of 0.5-3 hours.
(No, this post has nothing to do with the Judas Priest song ‘Electric eye’, but the lyrics do seem apt.)
There are so many ways of looking at the world. Look out the window, take a stroll, go trekking, set sailing, and it's there. Open Google Maps, drive through Street View, browse through hours of footage from satellites, pause and play on YouTube or Vimeo or wherever, and it serves its breathtaking detail to you in the form of rivers, seas, clouds, mountain ranges, rivers, forests, and the patina of human civilization.
There are different ways of belonging to the world as we know it, and each one is differently strong in making you feel like you belong.
The ultimate vantage point - from outer space - itself is typified by an overwhelming sense of togetherness called the overview effect. Astronauts and cosmonauts stepping out of their crafts for the first time have claimed to experience a large shift in their awareness as they gaze upon the glorious green-brown-blue sphere, free of its gravity.
One can only imagine a flooding awareness of nativity. Being able to gaze at the home of 7 billion, the only 7 billion in a very, very large radius, I should imagine, can be mind-blowing.
Eye in the sky
Now, a Canadian company plans to bring the view from space to watchers on Earth. Urthecast (pronounced like 'Earthcast') has teamed up with organisations in Canada and the UK to build and install HD cameras to the underbelly of the International Space Station (ISS), and downlink the data to Earth where people can watch live footage on the internet.
The idea is simple, elegant yet grand, and opens up an array of opportunities, especially since it’s planning to release an API for developers to work with the visual data in different ways.
As Urthecast's Scott Larson, Director and President, advertises the motive, imagine being able to see the Earth as it transpires. Imagine being able to watch rivers flood valleys, idiots chopping down trees in protected areas, standing crops across the planet and how much they're likely to yield this season, and even people taking strolls on their rooftops.
How? The HD cameras will boast a resolution of 1 metre, which is exquisite. However, Larson claims Urthecast itself will stop short of capturing individual people's faces, presumably to avoid the sort of backlash facing Google Street View.
The cameras will be ferried to the ISS by a Russian Soyuz launch later this year, after which engineers will screw the devices on to start streaming low-quality and then high-quality video by the end of 2013. Given the space station's orbital period of a little less than 93 minutes, it goes over the same region of the planet 16 times a day, throwing up enough for viewers to take in.
The downside is that areas outside the cameras' view are likely to remain in a "shadow" for weeks on end.
The depth of data
There are a lot of uses this shallow yet significant data can be put to. By shallow, I mean Urthecast (assuming it pulls its feats off) isn't going to be transmitting the kind of data we're already receiving from satellites - many of them deployed into orbit to provide information at different scales, depths, and wavelengths to suit a variety of purposes.
Urthecast is going to provide a high-resolution live-stream of the Earth as it hurtles in orbit around the Sun, and with a tape-delay of from 30 minutes to a few hours (depending on where you are). For the kind of information the cameras will be able to provide, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social network already do better - and with a time-delay that’s left the shelf-life of most news items at about 15 minutes.
What makes it significant, then, is that such footage will effectively compactify the sense of wonderment into a flat, two-dimensional landscape that you can animate at will. Yes, it's great that we're able to do this, but what it can't convey makes all the difference: the largeness, the feeble magnitude of our and the humbling magnitude of its existence.
Urthecast is going to trivialise the vertigo.
Earth: A hologram
With that, the Earth will become a large, powerful canvas of information, with knowledge lurking in all kinds of places. It will become a set of numbers - designating colours and depth to pixels and coordinates to their positions. Large-scale events - like moving ice shelfs in the Antarctic, migration patterns of giraffes in the Serengeti or types of urban invasion of geographic landscapes - will suddenly become more easily plottable, contextualisable, and interpretable. It will throw up human events - both tragic and celebratory - for everyone with an internet connection to witness.
What it can do to our definition of humanity will be interesting to track (watching the literature's a good place to start). Never have we been able to look in on ourselves at such a scale. The apps that that will be centred around this endeavour will only - hopefully - amplify the sensation for us. As Larson told Wired: "Some apps will be trivial. Others will be profound."
There’s also the question of privacy, and what information about ourselves we think we can control. While there’s not going to be the sort of encroachment that Facebook and Google are capable of enabling, think about where this leaves governments.
Would it kill your sense of privacy or will it make you feel better knowing that wrongdoings are harder to hide? Don’t you think there’s going to be a flurry of comments about how states or doing this or that wrong, leaving them underperforming in the eyes of the people, even as they’re actually working to solve the problems?
Like a Google Earth with the time dimension, Urthecast's idea seems poised to be able to alter our perception of the Blue Dot, not quite pale.