Figure 1 Image Scout provides today's intelligence analysts with advanced visualization and data fusion capabilities

Taking 3D Visualization to New Heights

Military Use and Beyond

Robert Mott
Director, Military & Intelligence Solutions
Intergraph Corporation
Huntsville, Ala.

The popularity of internet-based 3D visualization applications is clearly on the rise. Tools such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth provide easy and intuitive access to a wealth of satellite imagery, aerial photos, mapping data and other location-based information that combine to generate a synthetic environment that models the real world in some way. Google, Microsoft and others are opening up this geospatial browsing experience to everyone, allowing users of all ages essentially to “spin the globe” and visit any number of locations for further exploration.

Some of these synthetic environments support sophisticated representations of real-world objects, such as using photorealistic textures, real-time video, and integration of other forms of complex information. Another feature that offers top performance and a continuous experience is the support for multi-resolution image and multi-resolution terrain data that enable multiple levels of detail.

Many organizations within the military, intelligence, and homeland security industries are considering, or already have embarked upon, deployment of these capabilities within their enterprises. However, initial deployment of 3D visualization technology can fall short of expectations for some of these agencies. As users in these organizations employ these geospatial browsers to fly to their area of interest for a particular task, they of course need to see their own in-house imagery and other information assets directly within that environment.

This is important so that the operators and analysts can perform required analysis; however, these users are finding out that achieving this goal may not be so straightforward or cost effective. Additionally, military and intelligence organizations require their own mission data in their original format to appear in these systems, and they require the use of military symbology when representing related mapping information in that context.

In the military and intelligence context, it is extremely important that all of the imagery, aerial photos, and other information be quickly integrated and accurately placed, since decisions need to be made rapidly. However, some geospatial browsers do not support direct connections to dynamic online imagery archives, and require conversion of the imagery into specified formats in order to appear in the visualization environment. In addition to causing delays in the overall decision cycle, this conversion introduces administrative overhead costs. As imagery is constantly collected and updated, it is essential that the visualization environment be fed with a constant stream of updated imagery automatically, and to do so while limiting data conversions that introduce delays in the process.

Skyline Software's suite of 3D modeling and visualization products delivers a rich and intuitive experience, and is built on an architecture that provides dynamic updates of imagery from online archives and offers support for direct connections to online web services. Whereas other systems may require preprocessing and manufacturing of the data prior to display, Skyline's model enables dynamic updating on-the-fly, thus ensuring the most up-to-date representation possible.

An additional concern is that these geospatial browsers offer seamless integration into tools and systems that already exist within these enterprises and not merely as stand-alone interfaces, or “stovepiped” tools. Many tools, such as Intergraph's advanced image exploitation application, Image Scout, are in widespread use within military and intelligence agencies around the world and use the same data that feeds the geospatial browsers. However, if geospatial browsers do not directly integrate with these applications, users must switch between systems and manually correlate information, thus causing delays in the overall decision-making process. See Figure 1.

Intergraph has directly incorporated the Skyline 3D visualization environment into Image Scout and other applications as a “3D engine.” This seamless integration provides a rich and rewarding experience, and further compresses the overall decision cycle. The integration between Intergraph and Skyline brings together key technologies that combine to solve many of the problems facing today's analysts.

The Importance of Automated Imagery Management and Ingest

There is no doubt that the sheer amount of digital information in the world today is rapidly increasing. As network bandwidths increase, disk storage becomes less expensive, and as all types of systems from camera phones to orbiting satellites collect information in higher and higher resolutions, we are faced with the growing need to manage all of these data. Military and intelligence organizations are finding themselves spending more and more time finding, accessing and transmitting these digital files.

A similar comparison outside of the geospatial industry is the rapidly increasing popularity of digital music. In the digital music consumer market, Apple provides a digital music management system, iTunes, that accompanies every iPod digital music player sold. iTunes provides a user-friendly and powerful interface for managing tens of thousands of digital music files, as well as photos and videos, while removing users from the burden of navigating folders and files with Windows Explorer to find those files. iTunes makes the music and other files easily discoverable and also provides direct uploads to the digital music players themselves.

In a similar manner, Intergraph has tackled the problem of collecting, managing, and disseminating vast amounts of digital imagery that can directly feed into a 3D visualization environment. This solution, TerraShare, automates the management of vast amounts of satellite imagery, aerial photos, elevation data, and other digital files that are essential to the 3D visualization experience. The imagery is indexed and cataloged, making that imagery automatically discoverable by the 3D visualization applications, thereby improving efficiency, reliability, and quality.

Organizations are also faced with the burden of finding, preparing and uploading data into these archives, activities that can consume a significant amount of time. Today's fast-paced environment also demands around-the-clock monitoring and processing of new data. Intergraph's Auto Terra Ingest tool automates the ingest and preprocessing, and uploads new imagery to TerraShare the instant it becomes available. This maximizes the effectiveness and productivity of the entire organization, and also raises the confidence level of the analysts, as they know beyond any doubt that they are working with the most recent and relevant data possible.

Interoperability and Collaboration

Providing the user with a high degree of flexibility regarding the selection of data sources is important for 3D visualization systems. Users across an organization have differing requirements and may require different renditions of a common area of interest, and may even need to link in new sources of information at the time of fly-through. Some remote information may be very dynamic in nature, such as real-time sensor feeds, weather patterns, or highway traffic conditions, so it is essential for the 3D visualization tool to create persistent links to these data feeds.

The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) provides open web services that allow users to discover and link to a variety of geospatial data feeds, including imagery. Some 3D visualization systems, such as Microsoft Virtual Earth, NASA's World Wind, and SkylineGlobe, support these OGC web services and provide the most up-to-date experience possible.
Figure 2 Direct integration with OGC web services provides up-to-date data feeds of dynamic information, such as weather
Users have the flexibility to discover new sources of web services and can then fuse and correlate many disparate sources of information to help the analyst visualize and understand information in new and improved ways.

Three-dimensional visualization technology can also be a uniting force. Mapping and imagery information provide a common, global language. Whereas many 3D visualization systems allow individual users to conduct their own fly-throughs and explore areas of interest with this common set of information, Skyline's 3D environment supports real-time collaboration among users across the organization. This powerful capability allows one user to conduct a fly-through, possibly a mission rehearsal, and then invite remote observers to “go along for the ride.” Each remote participant experiences the environment in the same manner, and can communicate real-time with the mission leader. If desired, the leader can pass flight control to another participant during the session (Figure 2).

Integration with Motion Imagery

Motion imagery is playing an increasingly larger role in modern warfare. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have become instrumental in real-time surveillance and operational support. The use of this collected video can provide a powerful analytical advantage and can serve to make future planning activities more effective.

Integration of these collected video streams in the 3D environment is essential. Whereas some systems allow for pop-up windows to display video, this feature requires the analyst to transition between views and windows and limits the assimilation of information. However, Skyline's integration of UAV feeds directly into the 3D environment providing for a more optimal experience. The background imagery and geospatial features add context to the video and help the analyst to understand better the video content as well as the environment that surrounds the field of vision of the camera or sensor.

For example, an analyst may be able to determine that a street intersection is visible in a stand-alone UAV feed, but he may not immediately realize which exact streets are intersecting. By fusing this video directly into the 3D fly-through, satellite imagery and mapping information provide that additional surrounding information, such as street names, and quickly orient the analyst. See Figure 3.


A key goal of these 3D visualization environments is to model and represent our environment in a rich and intuitive manner. For military and intelligence organizations, this modeling must be done quickly and accurately and must make complete use of existing imagery and other information in a variety of formats and locations. Such modeling should also do so without requiring conversion of the imagery or data.
Figure 3 SkylineGlobe provides real-time integration of motion imagery directly into the 3D environment
To be truly useful, these 3D visualization applications must integrate with existing applications that provide ongoing analysis and decision support. They need to provide flexibility for users to incorporate additional data sources at the time of fly-through as needs dictate. While some of these systems may provide a very rich fly-through experience, if the data are not accurate or relevant, then their use as a true decision support tool is greatly diminished.

Imagery management systems are critical to establishing a reliable foundation from which to generate an accurate and truly representative 3D environment, since they automate the search and dissemination of vast amounts of digital information. As military organizations face the need to collect, manage and share more and more data, imagery management solutions such as TerraShare will be the key to doing so reliably, securely and cost efficiently. Just as iTunes automatically delivers digital music to an iPod, TerraShare delivers digital imagery to the analyst's 3D visualization environment.

As we deal with the ever-increasing volume and variety of imagery and other digital information, we must be prudent about how we present that information to the analysts and operators. Consolidation of windows and views, and effective blending of all kinds of information into one seamless environment, are essential for rapid understanding and assessment. We must strive to make the complex simple, to consolidate information delivery so that analysts can be more effective than ever before in our complex world. Three-dimensional visualization technology can be instrumental in achieving this goal.End

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