Put Yourself On the Map, Build a Virtual House: Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings, Part Three

When I set out to write “Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings” two weeks ago, I really meant to put all seven projects into one column. But I’m famous around Xconomy for my inability to say anything briefly. If 800 words are good, then 1,600 words are even better—that’s my motto.

The point being that I only got through three projects in that first column—on art, writing, and photography—before I ran out of time and space. Last week, I finished two more, on audio self-publishing and computer animation. In today’s third and last installment, I want to suggest two final projects that will give you a chance to express yourself in digital media that may be a little less familiar: maps and 3-D virtual worlds.

6. Put Yourself on the Map with Platial

Mapmaking hasn’t traditionally been seen as a craft open to amateurs, or even one where self-expression is encouraged. A map, after all, is a public resource, and is supposed to be objective and accurate, right? Well, maybe in theory. In practice, the digital revolution is transforming the meaning of maps just as drastically as it’s changing the way we think about music and news and other forms of communication.

Platial is a website where average users can try a new form of storytelling that combines maps, photos, and writing. Once you’ve signed up for an account, you can create your own themed maps for other Platial visitors to browse. Each map consists of a set of locations that you designate on an underlying Google map; for each location, you can add a title, a written description, photos, and Web links.

My Platial Map of Vertigo LocationsOne way to use Platial would be as a kind of personal photo-travelogue, uploading pictures from your trips across the country or around the world. But a lot of people seem to employ Platial to document personal interests or obsessions. For example, a user named “Barnaclebarnes” has created a map of famous film locations, like the house in suburban Tujunga, CA, where Steven Spielberg filmed E.T. And I’m working on my own Platial map showing locations around San Francisco used in one specific film, Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

You can designate a map on Platial as closed—meaning it’s for your own personal doodling—or open, meaning anyone can contribute to it. One cool open map is “Where I Was When I Heard Obama Won,” where you can join the more than 15,000 people who have marked the spots where they learned of President Obama’s historic election. For people on the go, the folks at Platial have also built an iPhone app called Nearby that figures out where you are and shows you nearby Platial locations created by other users. The app also lets you create and document new locations directly from your phone.

To me, the intriguing thing about Platial is the way it melds the personal and the public—allowing users to anchor their inner visions and insights by attaching them to maps representing our shared landscape. And Platial is just one example of a worldwide explosion of Web-mediated geographical expression and exploration. The phenomenon goes by fancy names like “neogeography” and “locative media,” but it boils down to connecting digital media with specific locations through various forms of geotagging and online publishing. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, there’s a lot more to explore, from Panoramio to Schmap and from geocaching to WikiMapia. One of my recent favorites is Atlas Obscura, a compendium of bizarre and curious locations contributed by readers.

7. Become a Virtual Architect in Second Life

A couple of years ago, I went on an extended journalistic assignment inside the virtual world Second Life, doing research for a Technology Review feature story about the growing overlap between digital mapping and 3-D virtual worlds. (That story, “Second Earth,” came out in July 2007.) Second Life is one of the most successful online worlds, and probably the most popular non-gaming world. Online role-playing games like World of Warcraft may have more people online at any given time, but Second Life is like the world’s biggest city square; users go there to socialize or do business or build things, not to kill dragons and battle for treasure and glory. (Though perhaps it’s all the same thing.)

Part of my research involved learning how to use Second Life’s built-in object-creation tools, which are much more extensive than those available in any other online world. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that Second Life was built by its citizens. The San Francisco-based company that runs the world, Linden Lab, merely creates the land underneath everything, and users colonize that territory, creating custom-built structures and communities, even whole economies.

Wade's house under construction in Second LifeBut my “research” got a little out of hand. As a kid I had some basic drafting tools, and I spent quite a bit of time fooling around with designs for futuristic buildings and cities. As an adult, I’d long been intrigued by CAD-CAM software for computerized drawing, but it always seemed too expensive and complex to learn. But once I realized how easy it is to create virtual objects inside Second Life, my long-dormant architecture bug came back to bite me, and I wound up spending a few solid weeks building things—mainly a pair of houses, one starter model and one rather elaborate mansion.

For anyone who shares my interest in drawing or architecture but thought 3-D modeling was the exclusive province of professional designers, I strongly recommend a trip into Second Life. Basic accounts are free, and there are plentiful “sandbox” areas where anyone can use the building tools. (If you want to build anything permanent, though, you have to buy some virtual land to put it on. Second Life’s “land use fees”—which are really server storage fees—start at $5 per month for up to 512 square meters of land, which is enough to build a simple house, and range up to $195 per month for a whole 16-acre “region.”)

I won’t try to describe building methods in detail—there’s an excellent walk-through of the basic concepts at the “Ivory Tower Library of Primitives” inside Second Life, and there are plenty of video tutorials on YouTube. But to boil it down, every 3-D object inside Second Life is made from basic shapes called primtives or “prims.” When you create—or “rez”—a prim, you decide whether it should start off as a cube, a sphere, a cylinder, a pyramid, or the like—there are 15 basic prims to choose from. Once you’ve rezzed a starting shape, you can move and rotate it within the world, stretch it along different axes, remove slices from it, and apply various “textures” or surface patterns, all using your mouse pointer and some basic dialog boxes.

To build the floor of a house, for example, you’d rez a cube, flatten it, and stretch it out horizontally. To add the first wall, you’d rez another cube, flatten that vertically, and then move it into position against the floor. And so forth. From these primitive beginnings, Second Life users have built entire castles and spaceships, casinos and cathedrals, Zen temples and shopping malls.

Wade's Second Life House 1
Wade's Second Life House 2
Wade's Second Life House 3
Wade's Second Life House 4
Wade's Second Life House 5

After a few weeks of fiddling with the tools and building a little shoebox of a house for my own Second Life avatar, I got serious and decided to build my virtual dream home, a two-story affair with lots of glass, stone, and balconies. (I thought of it as a sort of cross between the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley and the Vandamm House in North by Northwest.) It doesn’t exist inside Second Life anymore—I got tired of paying the land use fees—but in the pictures at left you can see what it looked like at various phases of construction. Everything you see was made from the basic prims, mostly cubes, cylinders, and cones.

Building the house, for me, was the fun part. I didn’t spend much time in the finished structure, except when I was having guests over. And once my Technology Review article was finished, I pretty much left my Second Life behind and moved on to exploring other technologies. But for many, Second Life is a canvas for serious art. To get a sense of what a really ambitious user can achieve in the realm of Second Life architecture, check out the in-world Frank Lloyd Wright Museum, which includes a full-scale reproduction of the Robie House in Chicago. I’ve been to the real Robie House, and the virtual version is uncannily accurate.

So, that’s my tour of seven digital-media projects that anyone with a laptop, a smartphone, and an Internet connection can try out for himself—moving from some of the simplest and most familiar art forms, like finger painting, to some of the newest and most immersive, like 3-D design. I hope you’ll try some of these tools yourself, and report back (in the comment section) on what you created.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “Put Yourself On the Map, Build a Virtual House: Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings, Part Three”

  1. big3news says:

    We’ve been using Platial for over a year and really love it’s usefulness for displaying our viewers all over the world.

    However, the site has been down for several days now and our Platial map embedded on our website no long displays.


    Any idea what’s going on? I hope it didn’t go bye-bye…it would be a real pain to have to start a replacement map service as we had nearly 100 people pinned on our map collected over a period of a year!


  2. Wade Roush says:

    @big3news: I’ve noticed that Platial is down too. I will try to find out what’s happening and report back.

  3. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @big3news: Platial is back up now. I checked with Platial founder Di-Ann Eisnor over the weekend, and she said the company was having an issue with its server colocation company.