Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Digital Canopy (Expanded)

It's intriguing that Google Earth 6 has started populating the virtual 'planet' with 3-Dimensional trees, which together with buildings and terrain offer the opportunity for some reasonable representation of exterior sites.  Right now, only a few cities have been added in selected cities and natural areas:

"I think we can all agree that our planet without trees would be a pretty desolate place. Besides the ever-important task of providing us with the oxygen we breathe, trees are an integral part of the landscape around us. In Google Earth, while we and our users have been busy populating the globe with many thousands of 3D building models, trees have been rather hard to come by. All that is changing with Google Earth 6, which includes beautifully detailed, 3D models for dozens of species of trees, from the Japanese Maple to the East African Cordia to my personal favorite, the cacao tree. While we’ve just gotten started planting trees in Google Earth, we already have more than 80 million trees in places such as Athens, Berlin, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Tokyo. Through our Google Earth Outreach program, we’ve also been working with organizations including the Green Belt Movement in Africa, the Amazon Conservation Team in Brazil and CONABIO in Mexico to model our planet’s threatened forests."
A short video from Google, particularly regarding their concept for showing specific species of trees to promote understanding and great conservation.

The problem, of course, is the rendering of trees, which is so often problematic in digital formats as to be more distracting than useful.  The trees are somewhat abstracted, due to the need to provide simple shapes lower memory usage.  (UPDATE: the images previously shown were from the old version of Google Earth - so I have no provided a comparison with these and a city that has the new Google Earth 6 Trees  - thanks to Damian @ World Landscape Architect for the heads up on this).  All images are exports from the Pro version.

Digital Trees (A Comparison)
A contextual overview is somewhat interesting, for instance, Central Park in New York City (which does not have the new trees yet) looks surprisingly robust with the old trees.

Central Park

The new trees - in this case from San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, show a more homogenous and subtle patterning of the canopy, a bit more realistic in the inability to see separate trees, and the lack of repetition.

Golden Gate Park

The distant views at eye level are interesting to provide context for the adjacent buildings, something missing in the sterility of the 3D google earth buildings.  From a flattened view, the Central Park trees do provide a foreground to the adjacent urban edges.

Central Park

Standing in a similar field looking outward, there seems to be a bit more depth in the new 3D trees, and the rendering of individual tree components is more noticeable (maybe it's just the lighter trunks?).  There's obviously less density surrounding Golden Gate park, but the foreground/background relationship of the distant hillside is pretty effective (now when is the Weather on Google Earth going to be perceptible on the ground-level view, which might make the sky look a bit more real).

Golden Gate Park

The whole thing falls apart for the old trees, similar to many other attempted representations of vegetation, at a close-up scale. You can see the X-shaped geometry of the trees (a common way of providing lo-res 3D vegetation) start to give up their individual facets and look a bit strange.

Central Park

While the new 3D trees are an improvement, as you can see a better approximation of the trunk and canopy as well as a distinction between varieties of species.  As anyone that's worked in Sketchup knows, the search for good approximations of trees is a difficult task to find good representations of trees to match diversity of real vegetation.  I think some Google Earth to actual photo matching shots would be interesting to show the differences and see how close these have come to true representation.

Golden Gate Park

An interesting first attempt (check out all of the cities with trees here), but one that still needs a lot of work.  Talking with folks that do a lot of 3D rendering, landscape is always a difficult aspect for a couple of reasons.  The overall complexity of a tree, for instance, is immense - even when compared to a building (which is typically more uniform in shape and is covered with 'flat' materials.  

The Problems of Rendering Trees.
Thinking of a tree as a complex system - there's a infinite branching system of components - trunk, branch, stem, leaf, bud, flower - radiating in 3 dimensions in an ordered, yet flexible paths.  A beautifully rendered tree is a masterpiece, but one that takes a lot of time and memory to accomplish and is a mere snapshot in time of one species, of a certain age, and at a certain time of year.

:: image via Peter Guthrie

Even with the perfect specimen, there are many other factors at work - which in essence requires each one to be slightly different, as well as the ability to capture form at different ages.  Take into account a changing canopy over the 4 seasons - often representing with spring leaf out, coloration, summer full foliage, fall color and leaf drop, and winter branching - and that adds another complex variable to the equation.  A bit simpler for evergreen species, but just think of the number of species of trees that exist in any particular city.  Thus attempts to simplify often create trees which are somewhat cartoony approximations of the real thing.  It boggles the mind - just think what it does to the CPU.

:: Revit Trees - image via YellowBryk

Finally, trees are but one aspect of the landscape - and unless you are living in a park from the picturesque era, most are juxtaposed with a layered structure from overstory, understory, shrubs, and groundcover - especially when viewed from a close-in site scale.  There are programs available that will allow for this complexity - but how many project budgets do you think have this built in, or how many firms have the technological capabilities and personnel to do this type of work. This dilemma becomes evident in the eventual jump from the 3D to more 2D forms of rendering (predominately Photoshop) which allows a snapshot to take on a much richer palette, with less time and expertise - to more accurately render vegetation.  These are relegated to a one-shot image, and lose the potential for fly-throughs and other 3D tools for representation.  The search, alas, continues - for the perfect set of tools.


  1. Very nice, thanks for the information.

  2. I hope and expect Google to take this farther: I'd like to be able to visit all of my trees planted to offset my carbon use.
    Should be easy to create in a second life kind of way. But I'd like to see a virtual connection to a real condition. I think that it might make our connection to the global biological community more readily understood.


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