Google Earth Transformed: Building a New World

by | 4 June 2024 | Conferences

Image credit: This project uses data from Google Maps. © 2024 Google LLC, used under fair use.

SIGGRAPH sat down with the visionary creator behind “Voxelizing Google Earth: A Pipeline for New Virtual Worlds.” Explore the creation of Voxel Earth, where creativity, passion, and cutting-edge technology converge to redefine our digital interaction with Earth’s landscapes on a voxelized canvas.

SIGGRAPH: Share an overview of “Voxelizing Google Earth.” What inspired this project?

Ryan Lewis (RL): Voxel Earth is a pipeline for automatically converting photogrammetry into voxels for extremely large datasets. We use it to convert Google’s 3D Tiles into Minecraft blocks, essentially creating a copy of the Earth inside of Minecraft. We can even artistically view the world in different ways, as mountains, towns, bridges, or temples feel very different when viewed in a voxel-based world.

The inspiration for Voxel Earth stems from my early days playing Minecraft. The game’s sandbox nature encouraged limitless creativity, leading me to start grand projects like towns and monuments that I often could never finish. For me, games like Minecraft highlighted the potential of virtual worlds to ignite curiosity and creativity, but also of our inability to do much even in virtual worlds without doing things in different ways, like using scripts or plugins to simplify the work of creating our visions.

As I got older, I wanted to simplify the process of creating these intricate worlds, which eventually led to a general interest in computer science and the ability to create programs that could interface and help realize our dreams faster. This eventually led to developing a pipeline to transform Google Earth data into voxel-based landscapes. Voxel Earth merges my love for digital exploration and technical innovation, and with it, I’m hoping to create a more accessible and dynamic representation of our world.

SIGGRAPH: Tell us about the scalable pipeline for generating interactive, voxel-based worlds in Minecraft and VR. How did you develop this pipeline? What makes it different from others?

RL: The pipeline we developed starts with Google’s high-resolution 3D Tiles, which are then decomposed into voxels, assigned colors and textures, and exported to Minecraft, browser, or wherever you want to view your voxelized Earth. We use an algorithm to assign color and material properties based on the original photogrammetry data, which makes the world vastly more recognizable, rather than being a little more than colorless blocks in town-like shapes. We also design an ML algorithm that then maps these voxels to Minecraft blocks, all the while preserving the environmental context and functionality within the game. For example, water blocks signifying a river might normally be just blue voxels, but we can do things like recognize the elevation and extent to say it is a river or ocean, and replace it with a water block instead in a Minecraft representation.

This certainly isn’t the first time anyone has tried to clone the Earth in Minecraft, but it is the most efficient and extensive implementation to date. Most other projects require extensive manual labor trying to literally build locations block by block and even hiring people to coordinate massive teams of “builders” for different areas around the world. Our pipeline automates the conversion process taken from 3D satellite imagery, significantly reducing the time and effort needed to create detailed virtual worlds. This scalability and efficiency sets our project apart and even sets a precedent for future work in the area to improve on existing technologies like photogrammetry. Voxel Earth will only become a better representation of the Earth in Minecraft and in the voxel format as imagery providers like Google and others achieve better accuracy with their 3D representations over time.

SIGGRAPH: In what ways does this project offer novel opportunities for exploring, educating, and engaging with digital representations of Earth?

RL: Voxel Earth offers great new opportunities for education and engagement. Teachers can turn geography, environmental science, and urban planning lessons into dynamic, interactive experiences, captivating students with game-like voxel maps. Users can dive into real-world data, gaining a deeper understanding of global landscapes and urban areas. Urban planners can effortlessly model and visualize development projects, while gamers can explore and modify accurate replicas of real-world locations.

A standout feature of Voxel Earth is its multi-resolution viewing capability. Users can transform landmarks like the Eiffel Tower into different block counts — 10, 100, or 1,000 — with a simple adjustment. This allows them to zoom out and see key details from a voxel perspective, enhancing both educational value and exploratory fun.

SIGGRAPH: Talk more about geospatial visualization. How does the project enhance the SIGGRAPH community’s access to it? Why is this important for the computer graphics and interactive techniques specialties?

RL: Geospatial visualization is crucial for understanding complex spatial data and making informed decisions in various fields. Our project enhances access to high-quality geospatial data by converting it into a voxel format that is easy to manipulate and explore. This accessibility is vital for the SIGGRAPH community, as it bridges the gap between technical geospatial data and interactive, visual representations. By providing tools and methods to visualize Earth’s geography in new and innovative ways, we contribute to the advancement of computer graphics and interactive techniques, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in digital earth representation and even our own virtual world creation.

Moreover, the voxel format itself is actually very efficient and could potentially be easier to store and render. In storage, instead of complex 3D models with textures, we can instead store matrices of numbers that represent block location and color. When we’re talking about the literal world-scale dataset of Earth in 3D — every optimization counts, and this tweak could mean savings of terabytes to even petabytes and lots of bandwidth! Voxel formats have often been talked about for use cases such as these, but Voxel Earth provides a very real and pressing use case for voxelization of a gigantic dataset.

SIGGRAPH: What can SIGGRAPH 2024 participants expect when they interact with “Voxelizing Google Earth” during Labs?

RL: Participants at SIGGRAPH 2024 can look forward to an immersive and interactive experience with “Voxelizing Google Earth.” They’ll be able to explore voxelized versions of famous landmarks and cities, interact with these digital representations in Minecraft and VR, and see firsthand how our pipeline transforms high-resolution geospatial data into detailed voxel worlds. The hands-on experience will showcase the potential applications of our technology and provide insights into the technical challenges and solutions involved in the project. Attendees can expect to be inspired by the possibilities of voxel-based digital earth representations and their implications for education, urban planning, and beyond.

Get ready to interact with voxelized versions of famous spots around the world. Register now for SIGGRAPH 2024.

Ryan Hardesty Lewis is a graduate student at Cornell Tech, pursuing a dual master’s in information systems and information science. His research focuses on leveraging machine learning for the development of digital twins and large-scale datasets. His projects have attracted attention from major news outlets such as the BBC, Washington Post, and FOX. Ryan plans to pursue a Ph.D. after completing his master’s program. He holds a B.S. in mathematics from UT Austin.

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