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Déjà View

MIT’s 1979 interactive map of Aspen, CO, anticipated one of Google’s hottest tools

Almost 30 years before Google Street View, a team of MIT students and faculty took a road trip to Aspen, CO, to create an interactive map of the city. The result was a videodisc, first demonstrated in the summer of 1979, that let users choose their own routes through the streets, listen to interviews with Aspen locals, change the season, or go back in time to see historic photos of existing buildings.

Aspen’s Close-Up: The movie map team, including John Borden, Michael Naimark, SM ’79, and Andrew Lippman ’71, SM ’77, used a rooftop camera rig to photograph Aspen.

The Aspen movie map, as its creators called it, was one of the first applications designed for a videodisc player–a prototype of which the Architecture Machine Group at MIT had received from MCA in 1978. The player was the first that went to “the non-top-secret community,” says the project’s director, Andrew Lippman ‘71, SM ‘77, now associate director of the Media Lab. The 12-inch discs read by the player were designed to store 30 minutes of footage. But Lippman says that the MIT students immediately started playing with other possibilities. Broken down frame by frame, 30 minutes of video was the equivalent of 54,000 images; a slide show devoting one second to each image lasted hours. Having hit upon the idea of using the discs to store information in this nontraditional way, the group began making an interactive map of MIT.

Peter Clay ‘78, then an undergraduate, rigged up a set of cameras and walked the halls, taking a photograph every 10 feet. ­Robert Mohl ‘70, PhD ‘82, then put the images together so that a person could use the video­disc player to “travel” through the Infinite Corridor and nearby halls. The result was impressive, but the group hoped to film a place with broader appeal. “We were interested in visually attractive things … that could demonstrate how this could be neat, neat stuff,” Clay says. “The halls of MIT just didn’t do it for people who weren’t from MIT.”

Funding to create a full-fledged movie map of Aspen came from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 1976, the Israel Defense Forces had rescued hostages from ­Uganda’s Entebbe Airport after preparing for the mission by training in a partial replica of the airport. DARPA saw that movie maps might provide a simpler, more affordable way to familiarize trainees with new locations.

Starting in the fall of 1978, the MIT group descended upon Aspen three times, drawn by the city’s simple gridlike road patterns and easy attitude toward cameras–and the fact that it was a beautiful place they all wanted to visit. Mohl, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the movie map, says that the group had to rig many of the systems needed to create it. For example, team members drove the streets of Aspen trailing a bicycle wheel that triggered cameras on the vehicle’s roof to take photographs every 10 feet; the resulting navigational footage served as the spine of the map. Others in the group photographed every façade in Aspen, interviewed locals, recorded sound bites, and collected facts. By stringing this material onto the backbone footage, they effectively allowed viewers to stop the car and check out a building.

The result got enthusiastic reactions. “We showed it to a lot of people, and everyone saw in it something different,” Lippman says. “They were not seeing a defense-funded mapping program. They were seeing the answer to their own visions of interactivity. … This was global thermonuclear interactivity.”

Michael Naimark, SM ‘79, who worked on the Aspen project and then made similar maps for more than a decade, says, “One could argue that the roots of two movements went through the Aspen movie map in the earliest days: the roots of multimedia and the roots of virtual reality.”

EveryScape, a maker of interactive online maps, was inspired by the Aspen movie map, says Mok Oh, PhD ‘02, the founder and chief technology officer. In tribute, EveryScape launched with Aspen as one of four featured cities. And Oh hired filmmaker John Borden, who worked on the original project, to create the camera rig for EveryScape’s cars.

The Aspen project and its heirs “can help change people’s perceptions of geography,” says Borden. “You can go through a book and see a picture of a pyramid, but now, with what Mok is doing, you can explore the pyramid.”

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