Using Google’s Building Maker to Change the Face of Boston

11/20/09Follow @wroush

When I was in fifth grade, I wanted to be an architect. (I also wanted to be a geneticist, a meteorologist, and an astronaut. I guess I wound up doing the next best thing to all of those sci/tech careers—writing about them.) I loved my junior builder kit, a collection of little plastic columns and I-beams and snap-on windows that was perfect for constructing models of International-style skyscrapers like the Sears Tower in Chicago. The only problem with the kit was that once you’d finished your perfect modernist creation, you had to tear it all down before you could build something else.

Now there’s an easy way to build as many model buildings as you want—and put them on display for millions of people to see. It’s Google’s Building Maker tool, released last month. The Web-based software lets you easily create beautifully textured 3-D models of real buildings by matching up simple digital shapes with information from Google’s aerial photographs of major cities. You can store your finished models in Google’s 3-D Warehouse and submit them to Google for “publication.” If a model is well-constructed and no one else has built a better version, Google will insert it into Google Earth itself.

Google made Building Maker available for about 50 world cities when it introduced the tool on October 13. This Tuesday, it added eight new cities to the list: Boston; Brussels, Belgium; Cologne and Dortmund in Germany; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Rotterdam in the Netherlands; and San Jose, CA. Once I heard Boston had been added to the list, I couldn’t resist diving in and playing around with the tool, starting with a model of my own apartment building in Boston’s South End.

After a couple of days of experimenting, I can tell that Building Maker is going to provide some addictive fun for a lot of mapping and modeling freaks like me. But just as important, I think it will provide a rewarding way for people who aren’t professional architects or cartographers to contribute to the “geoweb.” Today, we can explore this expanding digital replica of the real world through 2-D interfaces like Google Maps, Google Earth, and Microsoft Virtual Earth. But as it gains fidelity, the geoweb could eventually blossom into the immersive, geographically accurate 3-D online world that futurists have called the Metaverse.

Assigning shapes in Google Building Maker

If the Metaverse does come into being someday, it will be in large part thanks to Google, which is on a mission to “create a three-dimensional model of every built structure on Earth,” according to an October blog past by Google product manager Mark Limber. But even a company as wealthy as Google doesn’t have the resources to model all the world’s buildings on its own. So in classic Tom Sawyer fashion, it came up with Building Maker, which makes the work so enjoyable that thousands of Google users will be glad to pitch in.

From talking with Limber himself yesterday, I’m convinced that this strategy is only one part shrewdness and about three parts sheer enthusiasm. “The world is really big, and there are an awful lot of buildings, so I do think everybody will have to get involved” to fill out the 3-D world, Limber says. “But on a personal level, it’s really fun to be able to drop a couple of blocks, move them around a bit, add a texture, and voila! There is a little bit of magic there that we hope will draw people into this whole word of 3-D, and be a little more informed about it because they participated in it.”

Like all good pastimes, Building Maker starts out simple, but goes very deep. What makes the tool possible in the first place is the fact that Google has deployed aerial photographers to fly over scores of cities at low altitude, taking pictures of each neighborhood from many angles. For any given building in these well-documented cities, Google is likely to have photos snapped from at least six different angles. Once you decide which building you want to model, Building Maker starts out by presenting you with a picture from one of these angles. In the first step in the model-building process, the program places an outline of a 3-D box over the photo, and your job is simply to drag the corners of the box until they match up with the corners of the building in the image.

Boston's John Hancock Tower, Google 3-D Warehouse ModelIn the easiest case—a building that’s a simple rhomboid, with a flat roof and no wings or protrusions—placing that one box and aligning the corners is almost all you need to do. The only further step is to examine and adjust your model from other angles. Because you’re working from 2-D images, you have to make sure the corners in the digital model match the corners in at least two different images before Google can know exactly where the model should go in the “three-space” of Google Earth, and what sections of the images should be applied to the sides of your model to make it look real.

Practically speaking, I found that you need to do the alignment from four, five, or six angles to get everything just right. While this may sound tricky, it’s actually quite straightforward, and will be especially easy for anyone who’s used other 3-D modeling tools such as Google Sketchup (Building Maker’s grown-up cousin) or the object creation tools in the virtual world Second Life.

Things start to get complicated—and much more interesting—when you’re modeling a more complex building. It was a lucky stroke for me that the place where I live, a building called James Court that was constructed in 2005 by a Boston-based estate developer Kenney Development, is both absent from Google Earth (meaning I could be the first to build a model of it) and has a fairly simple shape: it’s a seven-story building that forms an L-shape on the corner of Newton and Harrison Streets, near the Washington Street corridor in Boston’s South End. But it has just enough irregular features, including a step-back roof on one wing and an overhanging brow on the Newton Street facade, that I had to a learn a few of Building Maker’s more esoteric tricks, such as the technique for creating new boxes and attaching them to existing ones, to make the model come out right.

As a historical aside, James Court is in a neighborhood that has gone through an incredible transformation over the last two decades. Washington Street runs along the narrow neck of land that, for centuries, was Boston’s only connection to the mainland. In the 1800s, the tidal flats on either side were gradually filled in to create room for rows of fashionable brownstones. But by the 1980s the Washington Street area was so decrepit that the creators of the NBC series St. Elsewhere (1982-1988) chose Franklin Square House, the building across the street from the James Court site, as the exterior for St. Eligius, the show’s benighted urban hospital.

Things started to turn around in the late 1980s. The elevated railway where Orange Line trains can be seen rumbling past the hospital in St. Elsewhere‘s opening sequence was torn down; the street’s parks and sidewalks were rebuilt; many new condo buildings went up, and many historic buildings were renovated; and environmentally friendly Silver Line buses replaced the old elevated. Nearly $600 million was poured into the area’s revitalization all told, and in 2008 the street won a “Great Places in America” prize from the American Planning Association.

James Court building in BostonI feel that modeling my building for Google Earth helps to extend this story in at least a small way, by adding to the digital environment that other people can now use to explore and navigate the reborn neighborhood. You can go to Google’s 3-D Warehouse to view or download my finished model of James Court—and if you click on the “View in Google Earth” button you can preview what the building will look like inside Google Earth, if and when Google approves it. For my next project, I think I’ll try modeling “St. Eligius” itself, a building to which James Court pays architectural homage in many ways. (Its curving mansard roof will pose an interesting geometry challenge). [Update 11/21/09: I've now finished a first draft of the "St. Eligius" building, which, as I just learned, started out as the St. James Hotel in 1867. President Ulysses S. Grant stayed there in 1869.]

The reason I’m so excited about Building Maker—and about digital mapping and modeling tools in general—is that I think they can foster a deeper sense of connection to the real world. Even before Building Maker, there was a burgeoning community of volunteer geo-modelers contributing their Sketchup creations to Google Earth, but now many more people can have the experience of literally putting something on the map. As Limber says: “If we put things in the hands of users, they can keep things fresh, put time and love into their creations, and frankly build out the world in ways Google can’t or won’t for a long time. We’re trying to demonstrate with tools like Building Maker and Sketchup and Map Maker and My Maps that maps are very dynamic things and that the world can help to create them and keep them up to date.”

So even if your city isn’t one of those covered by Building Maker yet, I encourage you to pick a location and try creating something. It’ll nourish your inner architect. And because the models are stored in open formats that can be imported into many different digital environments (not just Google Earth), you’ll be doing a favor to every citizen of the emerging Metaverse.

Here’s a pretty good Google video on Building Maker.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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