Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 3 (March 2002)

Digital Map Making

By Karen Moltenbrey

A few months ago, most US citizens had never heard of Kabul or Kandahar, or even knew the geographic location of Afghanistan, the country in which these cities are located. When Operation Enduring Freedom placed these areas in the spotlight, it became imperative for news broadcasters to educate viewers about the lay of the land so they could better understand unfolding events. At MSNBC, the news team used detailed 3D animated maps to dynamically illustrate these far-flung locations for both its live news and taped programming.

"Our 3D animated globes with full topography are far more effective and compelling to the viewer than a flat, 2D still map," explains Lori Neuhardt, head of graphics at MSNBC.

To create its animated maps, the television network uses Curious Software's World Maps package running on a PC-based system. Built into the software are licensed vector databases of the entire world and actual relief data. When combined with imported data or satellite images, users can create, for instance, an animation of a spinning globe that zooms right into a specific region. "With the Curious system, we can create a 3D still map in 2 to 3 minutes," says Neuhardt.

After a request for a particular map is placed, the MSNBC graphics team finds the general location within the database of maps (world, US, European, etc.), calls up the country, then specifies the city or region. If a map of the area has been previously created, such as for Afghanistan, the group can quickly reload the earlier project and make the necessary alterations.

Prior to using Curious World Maps, Neuhardt and her staff created maps with Quantel's Paintbox. "We had to research and grab the topography for every region ahead of time from CD-ROMs or other sources, then we had to manually look through an atlas to find each location," Neuhardt explains. "A 2D topographical still map with several specific locations could take as long as 10 to 20 minutes to build and involved a lot of guesswork. If we didn't have the topography for that specific region ahead of time, the process could take as long as 30 to 45 minutes. With the Curious maps, we get the topography and correct location instantly."
The MSNBC network is using 3D animated maps to help its television audience gain a better picture of global events, especially those that are occurring in remote locations of the world such as Afghanistan.
(Image courtesy MSNBC.)

Creating a 3D animated globe without the Curious system was even more time-consuming, because the insufficient image data had to be transferred into the network's 3D software and then into a 2D nonlinear compositing and editing system. Generally, this process took one to two hours, and the results were sometimes less than ideal. "The resolution wasn't always crisp when we needed to zoom in tightly to a particular region," explains Neuhardt.

Therefore, the network's graphics group rarely used globe animations because they were so time-consuming and labor-intensive to create. Since purchasing the Curious World Map package last spring, however, the team regularly uses animations and dynamic maps (which required training nearly everyone in the department to use the software just to meet the demand from the producers). MSNBC's affiliate NBC also bought the Curious map software, so the networks have established a system for swapping maps, which saves additional time.

When the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, the artists used 3D drawings of the structures to illustrate events as they unfolded in New York City. "We are based close to Ground

Zero, so we already had plenty of reference detail concerning the surrounding area," explains Neu hardt. "Soon after that, we real ized we were going to need detailed maps of Afghanistan-particularly road maps."

Since September 11, the team has created several maps and animations to illustrate the changing locations of national and international breaking news events and to show where the network's anchors and reporters are positioned globally. "We have a small globe animation that rotates to each MSNBC correspondent's location, which appears in the upper left corner of the screen over the talent's shoulder," says Neuhardt. "Whenever there is breaking news, we're able to quickly animate a globe with full topography, within our specific style format, which starts in the US and rotates to each point of interest. We can show what is going on, where it is happening, and where each location is in relation to the others. More important, we can do this more accurately than ever before."

"One of the more recent requests we had was for a map showing the location of [known] landmines in Afghanistan. With the software, we were able to produce a graphic that showed this very effectively," says Neuhardt. "Maps help bring a story to life, especially when the action is taking place outside the US. Somehow, seeing a map makes the event more real."

Key Tool: Curious World Maps, Curious Software (