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Improving Interaction with Virtual Globes through Spatial Thinking: Helping Users Ask "Why?"

  • University of St.Gallen

Abstract and Figures

Virtual globes have progressed from little-known technology to broadly popular software in a mere few years. We investigated this phenomenon through a survey and discovered that, while virtual globes are en vogue, their use is restricted to a small set of tasks so simple that they do not involve any spatial thinking. Spatial thinking requires that users ask "what is where" and "why"; the most common virtual globe tasks only include the "what". Based on the results of this survey, we have developed a multi-touch virtual globe derived from an adapted virtual globe paradigm designed to widen the potential uses of the technology by helping its users to inquire about both the "what is where" and "why" of spatial distribution. We do not seek to provide users with full GIS (geographic information system) functionality, but rather we aim to facilitate the asking and answering of simple "why" questions about general topics that appeal to a wide virtual globe user base.
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Improving Interaction with Virtual Globes through Spatial
Thinking: Helping Users Ask “Why?”
Johannes Schöning
Institute for Geoinformatics
University of Münster
Robert-Koch-Str. 26-28
48149 Münster, Germany
Brent Hecht
Department of Geography
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
United States
Martin Raubal
Department of Geography
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
United States
Antonio Krüger
Institute for Geoinformatics
University of Münster
Robert-Koch-Str. 26-28
48149 Münster, Germany
Meredith Marsh
Department of Geography
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
United States
Michael Rohs
Deutsche Telekom Laboratories
TU Berlin
Ernst-Reuter-Platz 7
10587 Berlin, Germany
Virtual globes have progressed from little-known technology to
broadly popular software in a mere few years. We investigated
this phenomenon through a survey and discovered that, while
virtual globes are en vogue, their use is restricted to a small set of
tasks so simple that they do not involve any spatial thinking.
Spatial thinking requires that users ask “what is where” and
“why”; the most common virtual globe tasks only include the
“what”. Based on the results of this survey, we have developed a
multi-touch virtual globe derived from an adapted virtual globe
paradigm designed to widen the potential uses of the technology
by helping its users to inquire about both the “what is where”
and “why” of spatial distribution. We do not seek to provide
users with full GIS (geographic information system)
functionality, but rather we aim to facilitate the asking and
answering of simple “why” questions about general topics that
appeal to a wide virtual globe user base.
Author Keywords
Virtual Globes, Spatial Thinking, Multi-Touch Interaction,
Wall-Size Interfaces, Artificial Intelligence, Wikipedia,
Semantic Relatedness.
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.2 [Information Interfaces and Presentation]: User
There exists myriad evidence of the dramatic rise in
popularity of virtual globes. Google Earth [23], the most
ubiquitous virtual globe, was downloaded over 100 million
times in its first 15 months [39] of release. U.S. President
George W. Bush has said that he uses Google Earth to look
at his Texas ranch [22]. Moreover, the phenomenon has
even inspired a Nature news feature [10].
The Nature article notes an important dichotomy between
the features employed by the casual user of Google Earth
and those used by the scientific audience. The author writes
“to the casual user ... the appeal of Google Earth is the ease
with which you can zoom from space right down to the
street level” while the attraction of scientists and enthusiasts
to the program lies in the fact that it is “an easy way into
GIS software” (p. 776). While virtual globes' use as an
entryway into the world of GIS cannot be understated, this
dichotomy raises doubts about the ground-breaking nature
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of the technology on the large group of people who do not
make the jump to advanced GIS packages. The results of a
survey, discussed later in the paper, elicit further concerns
about the superficiality of tasks performed by the average
virtual globe user.
As defined in the recently published National Research
Council Report, Learning to Think Spatially [12] spatial
thinking (in the geospatial domain) is a “dynamic process
that allows us to describe, explain, and predict the structure
and functions of objects and their relationships in real and
imagined spatial worlds.” (p. 33) A significant part of the
spatial thinking process involves generation of hypotheses,
pattern predictions, and tests of hypotheses. Essentially,
when thinking spatially, individuals observe what patterns
exist in the environment and seek to provide explanations
for these patterns. In short, these individuals ask “what is
where?” and “why?”.
GIS is increasingly heralded as the most probable support
system for facilitating the spatial thinking process as it
allows for spatialization [17] of non-spatial datasets. The
spatial representation of data permits the individual to ask
“why” questions – i.e. why certain patterns or relationships
exist in or between certain places – questions that are
difficult to formulate when the same data is experienced in
a different format (e.g. a spreadsheet). With expertise in
traditional GIS technology, these patterns and processes can
be further explored using spatial statistics and other
advanced operations, analyses certainly beyond the
knowledge of the everyday Google Earth user.
As virtual globe technologies become increasingly
pervasive, much hope surrounds their capacity to
potentially enhance spatial thinking ability among both K-
12 students and non-expert users. However, as
demonstrated in the results of a survey on the uses of virtual
globes (see below), most individuals use these technologies
simply for observational purposes, and little to no spatial
thinking actually occurs. In other words, the majority of
individuals seem to use these technologies to observe the
“what” of spatial data (e.g. the location of their home or
business and where it is in relation to other prominent
geographic features), but moving beyond pure observation
to questioning why certain patterns exist in the landscape
proves out of reach to the casual user. As typical virtual
globe technologies are not coupled with specific datasets or
feature sets, and adding data to the existing software
involves a certain level of expertise, the majority of
individuals does not have access to the information or tools
they need to ask the “why” questions. Therefore, the
technologies do not, in their current form, typically support
the spatial thinking process.
Importantly, this research is not an effort to incorporate an
easy-to-use GIS into a virtual globe software package.
Other projects such as ArcGIS Explorer [16], Google Earth
[23] itself, and Mapalester [25] have tackled this problem to
at least a small extent. Our aim is entirely different. Rather
than providing the user with advanced GIS functionality
(e.g. spatial join, cluster analysis, buffers) to answer spatial
thinking questions, our system facilitates the asking and
answering of simple “why” questions, e.g. Why does this
spatial feature display this value? What is the relationship
between these two features?
Our prototype (see figure 1) enables this facilitation by
demonstrating enhancements in two key areas: data type
and interface. We introduce a new simple spatial thinking-
oriented virtual globe data type called Explicitly
Explanatory Spatial Data (EESD), which contains both a
standard spatial layer and a new explicitly explanatory layer
designed specifically to answer “why” questions. Two test
case data sets are presented. The first is based on our
previous WikEar [38] and Minotour [27] projects, which
use Wikipedia to generate narratives between geotagged
Wikipedia articles. The second uses a prototype of GeoSR
[26], a new semantic relatedness-based system that is
backed by a Wikipedia-based knowledge repository. The
semantic relatedness literature originates in computational
linguistics and seeks to define a single number to “quantity
the degree to which [any] two concepts are related” [4, p.
Figure 1. Usage of our virtual globe prototype on a multi-
touch surface (user is zooming).
The following section places this paper in the context of the
related work in the variety of fields that provide the basis
for this research. The third section covers the analysis and
results of a survey conducted on virtual globe use in
Münster, Germany. In the following section, we describe
the conceptual design of our system from both a data type
and interface perspective. Our implementation is discussed
in the fifth section and the sixth section contains a
presentation and discussion of the results of an informal
evaluation of the interaction with our new system. We
conclude with a discussion of future work.
NASA World Wind [35] is the second biggest player in the
virtual globes market behind Google Earth [23]. While
Google Earth is targeted at a general audience, NASA
World Wind can be more easily customized for specialized
groups of users. As a browser plug-in, Microsoft’s
Windows Live Local Earth 3D [32] also provides an
interface to a variety of high-resolution satellite images and
maps. ArcGIS Explorer [16] from ESRI, the leader in the
professional GIS market, is a client for ArcGIS Server and
supports WMS (Web Map Service).
The two prototype EESD layers developed in this research
draw from a variety of disciplines. The first layer, which is
based on Minotour and WikEar, is rooted in the field of
intelligent narrative technologies (INT). Although it is
unique in its approach on the technical side, it is firmly
based on the narrative theory developed in [28], [6] and
others. The second layer is motivated by previous semantic
relatedness measures, such as those described in [8]. Three
other relatedness measures based on the Wikipedia corpus
have been published: WikiRelate! [40], Explicit Semantic
Analysis [20], and the work of Zesch et al. [42]
Critically, our new wall-size interface – based on multi-
touch technology – is the facilitator between the “what is
where” and “why” questions and the new data type, and is
designed to maximize ease of use. Our use of multi-touch
was inspired by a desire to take advantage of advances in
technology to optimally assist the user in posing and
receiving answers to simple spatial thinking questions.
We use a low-cost, large-scale (1.8 x 2.2 meter) multi-touch
surface that utilizes the principles of frustrated total internal
reflection (FTIR), greatly increasing the near-future
practicality of our prototype because such interfaces are
cheap and quick to build. Jeff Han presented the original
FTIR multi-touch sensing work in February 2006 at the
Technology Entertainment Design (TED) Conference
[24]. Total internal reflection is an "optical
phenomenon that occurs when a ray of light strikes a
medium boundary at an angle larger than the critical angle
with respect to (a) normal to the surface" [43]. Changing
the refraction index by touching the medium effectively
creates an infrared light spot under the touched area.
Detecting this spot with a camera behind the multi-touch
surface and applying simple computer vision
algorithms to calculate the position of the touch on the
surface is straightforward. These surfaces, capable of
sensing fingers, hands, and even whole arms, can
be constructed from readily available components. That
said, the steps involved in building a high-quality FTIR-
enabled surface on both a software and hardware level are
not trivial and require much engineering effort. If
multi-touch applications need to distinguish between
different users the “Diamond Touch” [15] concept from
MERL could be used, with the drawback that the users
either need to be wired or stay in specially prepared
locations. Because it is less important in our work to
distinguish between different users, we determined that
the benefits of using FTIR far outweigh the
The selection of relevant data, the configuration of adequate
data presentation techniques, and the input or manipulation
of data are central tasks in an interactive system. A
criticism of many previous multi-touch projects is that the
model of interaction does not change at all from previous
interaction paradigms. In Han [24], the iPhone [2],
Microsoft Surface [33], etc., two-finger gestures are the
only interaction paradigm in which the capabilities of multi-
touch are used. We make an effort to use the full potential
of multi-touch in providing the user an intuitive way to
interact with our prototype.
With more and more technology being embedded into the
environment, new interaction paradigms that go beyond the
traditional WIMP metaphor have arisen, several of which
are relevant to our work. Virtual globes still require
displays, but these can be of arbitrary sizes. Larger displays
(100 cm and more) are especially suited to our virtual globe
prototype. Mice and keyboards can be used to navigate a
virtual globe, but are not optimal devices for this purpose
(e.g. special 3D-space mice [1] do exist to operate Google
Earth efficiently). Multi-touch ([5] and [18]) has been
shown to work well with large screens due to its support of
multi-finger and bi-manual operation [11].
A user survey was conducted to investigate the usage and
user needs of virtual globes. The study included 120
participants: 60 female and 60 male. They were randomly
selected in a pedestrian area in Münster, Germany and had
a mean age of 34.2 years (SD=8.7). The length of the
survey was about 5 to 8 minutes, during which time each
participant was asked ten questions about her or his
knowledge and use of virtual globes, as well as digital
maps. We also asked about digital maps to investigate the
usage similarities and differences between the two
geovisualization mediums.
First, the participants were asked if they were aware of
digital maps; 89.2% (± 5.5%) of the participants answered
in the affirmative, of whom 92.5% (82.5% ± 6.8% overall)
use digital maps more than 5 times per month. When asked
identical questions about virtual globes, 67.5% (± 8.3%)
said that they were aware of virtual globes while 59.2%
overall (± 8.8%) said they used them more than 5 times per
We then asked users about the motivations behind their
virtual globe and digital map use. Around half (53.4% ±
11.6%) said they used virtual globes for either looking at
their own house or other individual places (e.g. a neighbor's
house, their hotel from their last vacation, the city center).
The second most common uses of virtual globes were
navigation (16.9% ± 8.7%) and locating businesses (14.1%
± 8.1%). More esoteric responses, such as that of a roofer
who said he used Google Earth to find roofs that needed
repair, rounded out the respondents' uses. The distribution
of digital map use was quite different than that of their
virtual globe cousins, with over 50% of respondents saying
that they used digital maps for navigation. More details on
both results can be seen in figures 2 and 3.
Figure 2. Usage of Digital Maps.
Figure 3. Usage of Virtual Globes.
Finally, we asked respondents to compare and contrast the
advantages of virtual globes and maps. They answered that
the main advantages of digital maps were easy navigation
and global map coverage. In contrast, the main advantages
of virtual globes over digital maps were the ability to view
high resolution satellite images and aerial photography
overlaid with additional information such as geotagged
Wikipedia articles and Panoramio [36] photos in a 3D
As noted in the introduction, the central design conclusion
of the virtual globe survey is that the majority of tasks
employed by virtual globe users are simplistic and do not
require spatial thinking. As spatial thinking involves both
noticing patterns in the landscape (whether it be a real or
represented environment), and questioning the evolution of
those patterns, simple observational activities do not
constitute spatial thinking. Similarly, with navigation and
business location (in this case), virtual globes are employed
simply to answer the “what” question, as well as “where”
certain features are in relation to one another. There is no
“why” in the picture.
It is also important to draw conclusions – albeit less firm
ones – from trends that can be found in the unstructured and
unsolicited responses from survey participants. First and
foremost, users like the general idea of displaying the Earth
in three dimensions, as they indicated they enjoyed viewing
the Earth as it truly is. However, they noted that the
interaction with a 3D environment was difficult and many
expressed a desire for easier-to-control interfaces [7].
Finally, and most critically, over the half of the users
indicated that they felt that virtual globes could be more
useful to them if they only could figure out more tasks to
perform with them (besides those they indicated). This can
be interpreted as a desire to engage in more advanced tasks,
likely those involving some spatial thinking.
Following the results of our survey, we developed a new
virtual globe prototype designed to widen the potential uses
of the technology by allowing users to spatially inquire
about both “what” and “why”.
There were two key challenges in developing the data type
for our improved virtual globe prototype. The first was to
design a general data structure that would enable users to
both ask and answer spatial thinking questions. The second
was to appeal to the thematic interests of the broad virtual
globe user base. The former challenge is the topic of the
first subsection and the latter is discussed in the second.
A Framework To Facilitate Answering "Why" Questions of
GIS software for years has enabled users to engage in a
large variety of advanced spatial thinking tasks. However,
the design goal for this research is to facilitate simple
versions of these tasks using intuitive paradigms in virtual
globes. Our solution on the data side is the Explicitly
Explanatory Spatial Data (EESD) type. Each EESD set is
defined by two layers. The first layer is the standard spatial
data layer that has been in use since the first GIS around 40
years ago. It can contain raster cells, points, polylines,
polygons, or any other feature type that can be displayed on
a virtual globe. This layer – in an abstract sense, at least –
also contains attribute data for the features. The second
layer, the explicitly explanatory layer, holds the innovation.
This layer contains explicit explanations for the attribute
values and/or relationships present in the spatial data layer.
It is hypothesized that explanation of these two properties
of a spatial data layer, corresponding to the “objects” and
“relationships” noted in the definition of spatial thinking
found in the introduction, will best facilitate basic spatial
thinking tasks. This layer must make it a trivial matter for
the interface – responding to a “why” query from the user –
to return an explanation.
Examples of EESD Sets
We have implemented two examples of the EESD sets, the
WikEar [38] data set, which is derived from our Minotour
[27] work, and the data set generated by an early version of
our GeoSR [26] project. Both have a spatial data layer that
is generated from the large number of hand-geotagged
articles in the English version of Wikipedia. The former
EESD set is of the type that contains explanatory
information about spatial relationships while the latter is
focused on explaining single data values (although users
will likely identify implicitly explained patterns as well).
Before detailing the prototype EESD sets, however, it is
important to discuss certain properties of the Wikipedia
knowledge repository. First and foremost, it is necessary to
acknowledge concerns about the risks of using Wikipedia
data. Denning et al. [13] codified these risks into concerns
over accuracy, uncertain expertise, volatility, coverage, and
sources. However, Giles [21] reported that Wikipedia is
comparable to the Encyclopedia Britannica in terms of
number of serious errors and only slightly worse than
Britannica when it comes to “factual errors, omissions, or
misleading statements”. Regardless, given the requirements
of this research: a natural language knowledge repository
with both an extensive and intensive coverage of world
knowledge, Wikipedia is by far the best choice. With over 2
million articles in the English version (as of submission)
and 14 other language editions with over 100,000 articles
(all methods described here work with all Wikipedia
languages), Wikipedia is the largest Encyclopedia to ever
For the purposes of this research, Wikipedia articles can be
split up into 3 groups: (1) articles without a geotag, (2)
articles with a geotag, and (3) articles about purely temporal
phenomena (i.e. the article on the year “1983” or the date
“October 1”). We call articles in the first group “non-spatial
articles” and articles in the second “spatial articles”. The
third group exists because purely temporal articles have
very defined relationships encoded in their links with other
articles; linking to a temporal article is nothing more than
providing an explicit temporal reference to the article,
something that can be useful in some contexts but amounts
to enormous noise in this work.
Finally, the concept of a Wikipedia “snippet” is critical to
both EESD sets. In a general sense, a Wikipedia snippet is
simply a paragraph of a Wikipedia article. These
paragraphs are unique in natural language text knowledge
repositories in that they are almost entirely independent of
one another. In other words, snippets almost never contain
unexplained or incomplete textual references to other
snippets. This is a direct result of the encyclopedic writing
style that is the Wikipedia norm, as well as the
collaborative nature of Wikipedia, in which the median
number of authors per article (as of 2006) in the English
version was over seven [9]. We have found experimentally
that the only context necessary for fully understanding the
vast majority of snippets is the title of the article to which
the snippet belongs. One can further increase understanding
of independent snippets by providing the hierarchy of
headings in which the snippet resides (i.e. for the United
States article, there are 3 snippets under “History->Native
Americans and European Settlers” as of November 26,
Minotour [27] generates cohesive stories from a Wikipedia
knowledge repository using a data mining methodology
derived from narrative theory. The WikEar [38] dataset
contains human-narrated versions of Minotour's stories in
an attempt to simulate future text-to-speech technology.
The stories begin at one Wikipedia article a, end at a
Wikipedia article b, and contain s snippets, each of which
belong to a Wikipedia article on a narrative-theory defined
optimal path from a to b through the Wikipedia Article
Graph (WAG). In the WAG, each article is a vertex and
each directional link between articles is an edge. The
variables a, b, and s are all user-defined.
The primary test case for Minotour and WikEar is the
generation of educational tourism narratives. In this
context, spatial Wikipedia articles are used for a and b,
while non-spatial articles provide the snippets for the body
of the narrative. Critically, applied in this manner, Minotour
narratives, by definition, explain a relationship between the
spatial entities that articles a and b describe. As such,
operating with a layer of the spatial references of Wikipedia
articles, the narratives form an explicitly explanatory layer
for the relationships between the points in the spatial layer.
Looking at the spatial layer, a user can ask, “Why are these
two spatial entities related?” and the system can easily
respond with an answer. With tens of thousands of spatial
articles in the English Wikipedia, users are able to ask this
very simple and general spatial thinking question about
almost anywhere in the world. This simplicity and
generality fits in with other typical virtual globe data layers
(i.e. satellite photography), but also allows for the explicit
answering of “why” questions.
An early prototype of GeoSR is the backbone of the second
EESD layer. GeoSR is based on our novel ExploSR
semantic relatedness (SR) measure, the first adapted to the
context of data exploration. The goal of SR measures is to
identify a value that summarizes the number of
relationships between two entities as well as the strength of
these relationships. By analyzing the Wikipedia Article
Graph (WAG), ExploSR derives such values between the
entities represented by Wikipedia articles. The key
variables looked at by ExploSR when examining any two
articles a and b are the myriad paths from a to b (and vice
versa) in the WAG and the scaled weight of the links in
those paths. Link weights are determined by a mixture of
article length, number of out-links (outdegree) between the
linked articles, text position of those links, and several
Wikipedia-specific variables.
In addition to being the first semantic relatedness measure
designed for use in a data exploration context, ExploSR is
the first measure to utilize the WAG and the first measure
that can be visualized in a reference system (in this case, a
geographic one) [26]. Further discussion of the benefits of
the WAG for this type of semantic relatedness application
is merited. First, the WAG is ideal for SR measures
designed with data explanations in mind because a natural
language explanation is built into every outputted measure
(see below). Secondly, the WAG is replete with both
classical relationships, i.e. is-a (hypernymy and hyponymy)
and has-a (meronymy and holonymy), and non-classical
relationships [34]. We have found qualitatively that these
non-classical relationships such as “spoke-at”, “ate-a”,
“wrote-about”, “tool-he-uses-to-look-at-ranch” to be far
more important than their more standard cousins when
evaluating SR measures on articles representing entities that
belong to a commonly-used reference system, such as
spatial and temporal articles.
Abstractly, ExploSR takes a Wikipedia article as an input
and returns a single semantic relatedness value from a to all
Wikipedia articles of type T. Users can then query GeoSR
for an explanation of any value, and GeoSR will return the
snippets containing the links that form the path between a
and b in the WAG, where b ε T. Typically, T will be a set of
articles that all belong to some semantic reference system
[30, 31] (i.e. spatial or temporal).
There are many geographic applications of GeoSR, two of
which are used in our GeoSR-derived prototype EESD data
set. The first occurs when a is a non-spatial article and T
equals the set of spatial articles. This will result in all
spatial articles having a semantic relatedness value to a.
The second occurs when T again equals the set of spatial
articles, but a is also a spatial article. While similar, these
applications differ significantly in that one result in
measures of theme-to-spatial entity relationships while the
other outputs spatial entity-to-spatial entity relationships.
Both applications, however, provide excellent EESD sets.
In both, the spatial data layer is a spatial visualization of the
GeoSR measure in which the spatial entities depicted are
those about which there are Wikipedia articles. In our
example (see figures 5, right, and 6), this layer is
represented as a graduated symbol map, with each spatial
Wikipedia article depicted as a point in a geographic
reference system. Other visualizations are also possible
with improved georeferencing of Wikipedia articles (for
instance, referencing articles about spatial entities of
sufficiently large extent to polygons rather than points). The
size of the symbol is defined by the value of the semantic
relatedness measure, with bigger symbols indicating more
and/or stronger relationships. The explanatory layer, is built
directly into the ExploSR system as described above.
Applied in a geographic context, this amounts to every
value visualized on the map having an explicit explanation
found easily in the data set.
Similarly to the WikEar dataset, the GeoSR system
generates data of broad, general appeal. Since a can be any
article, the user is able to see how related all entities
described by Wikipedia articles that are spatially referenced
are to any entity in all of Wikipedia, from “multi-touch” to
“George W. Bush” to “Rugby” to “Surfing”. Importantly,
both layers are easily applied to spatial subsets, or
“extents”, of the globe. Using the measures on small extents
will focus the graduated symbol visualization to allow
maximum differentiation in relatedness in the region of
Figure 4: Interaction with the first (Wikear) EESD Layer.
Interaction with the data
To benefit from the EESD layers, users need an intuitive
way of interacting with them. To provide this intuitive
interaction paradigm, we use the full advantages of our
multi-touch surface.
The basic spatial interaction tasks such as pan, rotate, zoom
and tilt are implemented using the principles shown in the
video by Han [24] and the iPhone [2]. For instance, the user
can pan through the world with the flick of a finger or hand
and use other multi-touch gestures to zoom, rotate, tilt or
navigate. “Click” and “double-click” are implemented with
simple taps.
Interaction with the First (WikEar) EESD Layer
The interaction with the first EESD layer is straightforward.
The user selects two spatial Wikipedia features by double-
clicking (double-touching) Wikipedia icons (which indicate
spatial Wikipedia articles) simultaneously with two fingers
(see figure 4). The icon selected by the one hand is the start
feature a and the other Wikipedia feature is the end feature
b. The start feature, end feature and a line between them are
highlighted and a story derived from Wikipedia (as
described in the previous section) is read out to the user.
Users can control the speed of playback by dragging their
finger from the start point (in green) to the end point. By
moving the finger from the end location to the start location
story is derived by swapping the start and end point and th
is stories is played back. By releasing her/his fingers from
the multi-touch surface, a user can stop playback and can,
for example, navigate to another place on the earth or
request other information.
Figure 6: Visualization of the theme “surfing” (second EESD
layer) on a globe scale derived from the German Wikipedia.
Interaction with the Second (ExploSR) EESD Layer
To interact with the second EESD layer, users must first
define a region. This can be done by activating the “region
definition mode” by touching a button and dragging the
hand(s) or finger(s) over the multi-touch surface (see figure
5, left). After lifting her/his hand or hands from the multi-
touch surface, a user sees a menu where she or he can select
one or more different “themes” (which represent different
articles a as input) for that region (in our prototype we have
25 pre-computed themes). By dragging a theme into the
region (see figure 5, middle), users can explore semantic
relatedness values for that “theme” in the region they
selected (see figure 5, right). Clicking on a single symbol
will provide the text-based explanation of the “why” of
each value as described in the data section. Without
dragging the “theme” into a predefined region, users can
explore the relatedness of that “theme” at a global scale (see
figure 6). This mode can be deactivated by disabling the
EESD view.
Both EESD layers operate from a significantly pre-
processed version of the Wikipedia knowledge repository.
The pre-processing takes as input one of the semi-regularly
exported “database backup dump files” from Wikipedia.
Currently only the English, German, and Spanish files are
supported, but with the help of a translator it would be an
easy matter to add support for any language version of
Wikipedia. For the larger Wikipedias such as English and
German, the size of these dump files is remarkable. The
latest English dump file as of November 2007, for instance,
was about 12.7GB of text. During the pre-processing stage,
the dump file is parsed in a Java parsing engine to isolate
article, snippet, link structure, spatial, and temporal
information, which is then stored in a MySQL database in a
variety of tables. A Java API to this database, which is
named WikAPIdia [26] is then used by the systems that
generate both EESD layers. The API provides basic access
to Wikipedia data as well as more advanced graph mining
and spatiotemporal features, which are used by both
Minotour and GeoSR.
As noted above, our interface is rooted in a 1.8m x 2.2m
FTIR-based multi-touch wall. This wall consists of a 12mm
thick acrylic plate, in which every four centimeters a hole
for an infrared LED was drilled. The acrylic plate was
mounted onto a wall and a wide-angle lens digital video
camera (PointGrey Dragonfly2 [37]) equipped with a
matching infrared band-pass filter was mounted
orthogonally at a two-meter distance. As a projection
screen, very inexpensive drafting paper was used. For the
projector we used a Panasonic PT-AE1000E HD Beamer.
Figure 5: Interaction with the second EESD Layer – Region Selection (left). Interaction with the second EESD Layer –
Dropping a theme into a region (middle). Interaction with the second EESD Layer – Visualization of the result (right).
To improve dragging operations, we placed a thin layer of
silicon (Silka Clear 40) between the acrylic and the drafting
The Java-based Multi-Touch Library [14] developed at the
Deutsche Telekom Laboratories and released under the
GNU Public License was used for image processing. It
contains a set of common algorithms designed to work with
any multi-touch system such as routines to label connected
components and track features. By using an application
layer, it is easy to manipulate objects and transform
(position, rotate, scale) them. The library also comes with a
module for accessing cameras such as the PointGrey
Our virtual globe is based on NASA’s World Wind [35].
According to [29], NASA World Wind has only one goal:
to provide the maximum opportunity for geospatial
information to be experienced, regardless of whether the
context is education, science, research, business, or
government. The NASA World Wind visualization
platform is open source and comes with a rich SDK for data
set and interface customization, which we take advantage of
with our EESD layers and multi-touch interaction.
State of the Implementation
Currently, we have working prototypes of the EESD layers
and an interactive version of our multi-touch virtual globe.
To improve the experience of our interface we have to
increase the speed of the EESD implementation, further
develop the integration between the globe and the data, and
improve visualization of the spatial data layer.
“Sanity Check” of our interaction
Twelve randomly selected employees (9 male, 3 female) of
the Institute for Geoinformatics innster, Germany (no
one who was involved in the project was included) were
asked to provide feedback on the interaction with the first
and second EESD layers.
Due to the fact that our prototype is not running in real time
and that interaction with such an “unready” interface would
be distracting to the users, we decided to run an
evaluation on a paper mock-up. In doing so, the user
acquired "a greater understanding of how the final product
will function and the way it will 'look and feel'" [44].
After explaining the possibilities of FTIR multi touch
surfaces, the users were asked three questions:
a) How would you choose two spatial features out of
a group of features and establish a connection
between them? (How to interact with the first
b) How would you select an area as needed in our
interaction with the second EESD?
c) How would you assign an attribute from a list to
an area?
The answers to these questions were as follows:
a) Eight of the 12 participants would select two
features just by clicking (single-touching) the
features’ icons simultaneously with two fingers,
just as we have implemented in our prototype. For
icons a small distance apart, one participant would
Figure 7: System overview of the prototype. The virtual globe is based on NASA’s World Wind [33] extended with EESD layers
and uses the Java-based Multi-Touch Library [14] developed at the Deutsche Telekom Laboratories.
use two fingers of the same hand and for icons
further apart one finger of both hands. The four
others would double-click (one just single click)
b) Ten of 12 participants would select a region by
circumscribing the area with one finger. One of
these ten, a trained geographer, would use two
fingers simultaneously. Two would use their
whole hand to select the region as is established in
our prototype. (We let users define a region by
using their fingers or of using their complete
c) Seven participants would touch the desired
“theme” in the list and then touch inside the
selected area. One of these seven users would
perform these tasks all at once. The other five
participants would drag the theme into the layers
as is done in the prototype. When the seven
participants who preferred the click interaction
were told of the drag method, six of them agreed
that the dragging methodology would be more fun
and maybe more attractive for an interactive digital
These initial results suggest that while we have to adapt
some of our interaction with the virtual globe, most of our
interaction paradigm is very intuitive. The informal study
also convinced us that users still think in WIMP interaction
styles. People have to use multi-touch surfaces more often
to become accustomed to their possibilities. After
improving the speed of the algorithms we want to formally
evaluate the interaction with both EESD layers
A common theme the authors' previous collaborative work
has been to bring to users of state-of-the-art consumer
spatial technologies a fuller sense of knowledge about the
world. Too often the gift of spatial context provided by
these technologies is under-used by applications that only
provide obvious functionality and ignore the users’
inclination to explore and learn. For location-based services
on mobile devices, this obvious functionality often involves
pointing users to the nearest pizza parlor or pub. The
corollary for virtual globes is, according to our survey,
navigation, sightseeing, and, mainly, innocuous voyeurism.
While these applications are certainly useful, much is lost,
particularly with respect to the “objects and their
relationships” that make up the inspiration for and the
answer to spatial thinking questions.
These thus-far missed opportunities do the greatest harm to
geography education – both intentional and incidental –
something that is widely recognized as severely lacking in
many parts of the world. For virtual globes, geography
education represents both a largely untapped financial
market and a chance to enhance world knowledge. The
possibility of virtual globes facilitating the spatial thinking
process provides an exciting avenue for this technology to
reach its full potential.
We have provided a glimpse of what is possible when
spatial thinking is enabled in a virtual globe. However,
there is an extensive amount of future work yet to be done.
First and foremost, more research must be completed into
the current state of virtual globe use. A wider and more
structured survey would be extremely useful and could be
used to formally derive a requirements analysis for a spatial
thinking-facilitating virtual globe prototype. Secondly,
more robust theoretical framework for the Explicitly
Explanatory Spatial Data (EESD) layers must be developed.
Additionally, we must complete formal studies of the
interaction with EESD data layers, particularly with regard
to the degree to which it enhances spatial thinking.
Separately, much work is being done to develop the EESD
types used as prototypes in this work. For instance,
implementation speed must be improved. Depending on the
entity, the calculation of the second EESD layer can take up
to 10 minutes using the Wikipedia data set. Additionally,
cartographic research must be used to inform the
visualization of these layers. We also hope to release
WikAPIdia in the near future as an open source project,
although the need for it has decreased in the past year
thanks to the development of other excellent Wikipedia
APIs ([3], [19] and [42]). However, WikAPIdia has certain
unique features that the Wikipedia research community
may find helpful, particularly with regard to its full support
of the “snippet” concept.
We are grateful to the Deutsche Telekom Laboratories for
partially funding this research.
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