JMU students making real Al Gore's vision for 'digital earth'

December 14, 1999

HARRISONBURG, Va. - Imagine sitting at a computer and taking a three-dimensional tour of any geographic locale on Earth.

While "flying" over the Grand Canyon, for example, you stop in midair to examine a rock formation and gather data on its mineral content. Then you glide inches above a river, learn its name and the quality of the water. And then identify plant and animal life at a glance - even discover the names of indigenous tribes that once inhabited this portion of the American West. Fanciful as it may sound, such a tool - envisioned and promoted in January 1998 by Vice President Al Gore - is becoming a reality thanks, in part, to nine students from James Madison University's College of Integrated Science and Technology.

Christened "Digital Earth" by Gore, the project will offer a virtual representation of the planet embedded with vast amounts of natural, cultural and historical data. Computer users touring a selected area will be able to tap into this information with a mouse click and even interact with it.

JMU is the first university to work on the project and has been named project leader for other universities that will help create Digital Earth in collaboration with as many as 15 federal agencies. Funding for the project comes from the agencies and corporate donations.

James L. Barnes, JMU professor of integrated science and technology, said ISAT senior Meghan Bauer's internship the last two years with NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton resulted in JMU's involvement with Digital Earth.

"NASA was so impressed with her work that they asked her back this year to set up a research center for students participating in the project," Barnes said. "She did, and not long after that, NASA called to say it wanted JMU to lead Digital Earth at the university level."

Barnes said the seven JMU students involved in the project collect data and images from sources nationwide and help embed this information in a 3-D, computer representation of Earth. He said JMU received imagery and support from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey.

The first stage of the project - creating a virtual "fly through" of the Chesapeake Bay watershed - has been completed using laboratories at JMU's CISAT, Aotometric Inc. and NASA, and will soon be made available to the public on the Internet through NASA's website.

Ultimately, Barnes said, Digital Earth will be available from NASA on both CD and the Internet. Because funding is derived from federal and corporate donations, Digital Earth will be owned by the public.

"It's projects like Digital Earth that epitomize the ISAT experience at JMU," Barnes said. "It allows students to benchmark what they're learning in a real-world context through internships and undergraduate research.

"As for Digital Earth itself," he continued, "its value for scientists, students, researchers and the public at large will be enormous, helping give us an accurate and up-to-date picture of the world in which we live."

In addition to Bauer, JMU students working on Digital Earth include Ryan Bonistali, David Bottoms, Candice Roman, Regan Warren, Sean Curry and Abby Llaneza.
Writer: Charles Culbertson, (540)568-3674

For further information, call Dr. James Barnes at (540)568-3154, or contact him via e-mail at

James Madison University

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