The Universe of the Metaverse
Unreal Engine: The Application of Geodata in Virtual Worlds (and Santa in the Real World!)
Introduction: Cesium is one of the leading companies making Virtual Worlds a reality. Gaming is not just for kids anymore, and it’s also not just for fun. Welcome to the Metaverse – a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.
The emergence of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are literally becoming a game-changer in the Metaverse. NFTs are making ownership of non-physical digital assets legitimate, because the underlying blockchain means that an NFT certifies a digital asset to be unique and therefore not interchangeable. Once you purchase, you can prove that certain one is yours, and it becomes an asset that you can sell. In games, because of this ownership, you will have more rights within the game, and this all translates into real-world money.
Austin Hill of Blockstream, quoted in “Blockchain Revolution” by Don and Alex Tapscott, saw it coming – the power of the blockchain in revolutionizing video games. In addition to NFT’s, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are being used in the Metaverse because the transactions are done on the blockchain. For example, crypto can be converted into Kongsbucks to use in the Snow Crash virtual world.
– Myrna James
Myrna James: This is Myrna James with Apogeo Spatial magazine. I am so happy to be here today with Patrick Cozzi with Cesium. I remember meeting you at GeoInt many, many years ago. You might’ve been working at AGI then. Please introduce yourself.
Patrick Cozzi: I’m honored first, thank you for having me.
Myrna James: Absolutely.
Patrick Cozzi: My name is Patrick Cozzi, CEO at Cesium, and my mission is to create the intersection of geospatial and computer graphics, and I’m sure that we did meet at the GeoInt Symposium while we were part of AGI.
Myrna James (00:47): That’s awesome, I love the clarity of that intersection between geospatial and computer graphics. It’s a really nice way to talk about visualization and to indicate that it’s more complicated than just visualization, right? First, I want to talk about Santa tracker and your partnership with NORAD. It’s becoming part of our pop culture, and I really love it. Could you share a little bit about that?
Patrick Cozzi: Certainly, we love the NORAD Track Santa. Cesium has been involved every year since 2012, and every Christmas Eve Santa makes his trip around the world and NORAD tracks his precise location over that day, using Santa Cams, fighter jets, radar, and satellites and geosynchronous orbit. That precise location is then transmitted to the Cesium visualization on the web, on NORAD Track Santa website, and 20 million children of all ages from all around the world can see Santa in 3D with the reindeer and animated snow going throughout the world, using Cesium as the base terrain visualization engine.
Myrna James: Oh, that’s awesome, since 2012, so almost 10 years – that’s really cool. Maybe we’ll do a 10-year anniversary celebration next year for Santa Tracker.
Patrick Cozzi: Let’s do it!
Myrna James: The other thing that comes to mind immediately regarding your legacy is tracking orbital debris, which is such an important thing for satellites. It’s increasingly important over time with all these constellations that are going up now for global internet with Space X and OneWeb and other companies, and so I’d love to hear about that. What’s the status on that now? I know that COMSPOC (Comprehensive Space Operations Center) is involved and that’s another AGI spinoff.
Patrick Cozzi: Sure. The earliest uses for Cesium dating back to 2011 were for aerospace, for a global scale, high-performance, high-fidelity visualization. The COMSPOC commercial space operation center tracking has lots of different types of operational and not operational satellites, including debris, and has used Cesium for the visualization of that. You see tens of thousands of objects based on observation, so then future propagation, COMSPOC is doing all the rocket science that goes into that, and then using Cesium as, again, the web-based, time-dynamic visualization engine.
“This bridge between geospatial and gaming – I feel like we kind of made 10 years’ progress overnight, right? Because when you connect those two ecosystems, suddenly all this geospatial data is available to the folks using the game engines, then suddenly all this tooling that’s available for the game engines is available to the geospatial community. So it’s really been quite, quite remarkable, and I think that this is the start of something really big there.”
Myrna James (04:02): Before we dive into some specifics around specific products and projects that you’re working on, I’d love to get an overview of the traditional business model. I know that you have clients in real estate, engineering, and construction, and of course, I’m sure the department of defense. They’re always the first ones to pick up on really high tech geospatial information. What’s the overview of the company?
Patrick Cozzi: Yeah, great question. Our mission is to help the world realize the potential of 3D geospatial data, and to do that, we’re building an open platform for software developers to build these 3D geospatial-enabled applications. We work with a variety of markets, conservatively about 19 different markets, and you’ve named some of the biggest ones there. A good example to bring up is our work within the construction world. We’ve helped Komatsu build digital twins of construction sites, where they’re moving dirt using bulldozers, excavators, and dump trucks, trying to understand their progress over time. Our ultimate vision is to create a safer, more efficient, and accurate job site. And we helped do situational awareness as well as create standards for interoperability in that domain.
Myrna James (05:45): That’s great. I want to ask about open source. Let’s zoom out and pretend that you don’t really know much about how open source works and explain how you have a business model where clients pay for certain things, but then they’re using open source software. Can you explain how that works?
Patrick Cozzi: Sure. First, we selected an open source business model because we believe we’re very early in the world of 3D geospatial data, and that’s the best way to make an impact on the world – to be as open as possible in order to foster community, collaboration, and innovation, and just to move the industry forward. So that’s why we do open-source, and as engineers we love it. We love the open collaboration in terms of forming a business around it.
There are many different models that you can build around open source. What we’ve selected is what’s called an open-core model where our visualization software and related libraries are free and open source, they’re widely used and they’re useful on their own. Then we provide optional value-add software in the form of cloud and on-premise services for data pipelines, and for curated data that can add value and accelerate your software development, building a 3D geospatial application. The idea is we built a very large community and then some subset of that community is potentially interested in your commercial offerings, and then in addition, we end up doing a lot of partnerships, a lot just because we’ve created such a large community. Folks will come to Cesium for the 3D geospatial expertise.
Myrna James (07:38): That’s great. I think it’s important for people to understand how that works. Next, what’s the difference between data integration and visualization? I know visualization is the output, the product, where you can actually see it obviously, but how much data integration do you do as well? Do you use raw data to pull into your visualizations, or do you rely on other companies to do that piece?
Patrick Cozzi: Yes, and yes. The visualization is all about the data, right? And that visualization is a tool to help you understand the data. What we see are a variety of different types of data – whether it be imagery coming off of satellites, whether it be a photogrammetry model of the city that was derived from photos, from a drone, or whether it be a point-cloud model derived from a terrestrial LIDAR scanner. So, Cesium allows the fusion of these different sets of data. You might take a global train model, put in a local photogrammetry model for a city, and then put building interior from LIDAR, all in one scene. We do what we see as the most common and most prominent kind of data integration for 3D, but then an application developer may add a lot more on top of that. They may add real-time shift feeds, or traffic, or just a variety of the many types of data that’s out there.
Myrna James (09:34): Okay, awesome. Thank you so much, I think that zoomed-out view is really helpful for people. Let’s get specific on some of the things that you’re doing now that you’re excited about. I know that Cesium for Unreal is really exciting. I’d love to hear about that, especially the applications for the video game industry.
Patrick Cozzi: We’re so excited about Cesium for Unreal Engine. Our mission has been increasing the intersection of computer graphics and geospatial and bringing Cesium to Unreal is a perfect example of that. What we’ve done is we’ve taken the game engines that have been built over decades to have really amazing performance, really high fidelity and visual quality, and we built a layer on top of that with Unreal Engine that allows the ingestion of real-world data.
It’s built on a WGS 84 ellipsoid for the globe, and it can incrementally stream data based on where the viewer is, so you don’t download the whole world when you zoom in to San Diego, you just get the San Diego part of the globe, and this combination of the ecosystems. This bridge between geospatial and gaming – I feel like we kind of made 10 years’ progress overnight, right? Because when you connect those two ecosystems, suddenly all this geospatial data is available to the folks using the game engines, then suddenly all this tooling that’s available for the game engines is available to the geospatial community. So it’s really been quite, quite remarkable, and I think that this is the start of something really big there.
Myrna James: What’s your timing on this?
Patrick Cozzi: We launched it March 30th, with overwhelming interest along a variety of markets.
Myrna James: I work with a nature preserve in Panama called the Mamoni Valley Preserve, part of Geoversity.org, and they do all kinds of amazing things in the jungle, including leadership training and epic journeys within the 12,500-acre nature preserve. Massive Entertainment, which is producing the video game for the Avatar movies, did a lot of training and filming there. They’re releasing the video games for all the Avatar movies, the second of which is an underwater Avatar movie.
It’s just really exciting that when you say you’ve made 10 years’ progress overnight, this just sounds like something that these video gaming companies need to know about, right?
Patrick Cozzi: Yeah, absolutely, right. So, our initial interest for folks using game engines and Cesium 3D Geospatial was in the modeling and simulation community. Then we see a lot of interest in virtual video production on a variety of other enterprise use cases like AEC (architecture, engineering, construction). As for gaming, I do see an amazing future, because when you look at gaming, so much of the effort that goes into making a game is in the content, the characters and environment, right? And anything that we can do to make building that virtual environment more efficient is really fantastic for gaming, and I think that we’ve started to bridge that gap, where using this scan data from the real world will be able to be used in gaming. I still think there’s more work to be done to get to the detailed level that will be needed for gaming.
Myrna James (14:07):
Yeah, that makes sense. Also, Cesium for Unreal is OGC verified, right? And they’re using a standard called 3D Tiles?
Patrick Cozzi: Sure, so Cesium for Unreal streams in the 3D geospatial data, like the terrain and 3D buildings, using an OGC community standard called 3D Tiles. Back in 2015, we created 3D Tiles at Cesium as a way to stream this massive heterogeneous 3D geospatial data, and OGC was very interested in that and saw that as an emerging area. We went through the community standard process to make OGC community standards, and to help create awareness and community around that open standard to get a very healthy and growing ecosystem.
Myrna James (15:14): The Metaverse
Oh, that’s fantastic that you’ve contributed that standard to the OGC. So, you guys have been so involved with the open source community with open API software and standards. That’s a part of the democratization of geospatial data. It’s becoming more freely available for people in general, not necessarily experts, right – not necessarily just GIS experts or geospatial imagery analysts to be able to use these incredible tools that tell us so much about the planet. I’d love for you to expand upon that, and on the creation of the Metaverse.
Patrick Cozzi: We see a lot of work nowadays towards the Metaverse – towards a more immersive, collaborative, and connected world. It’s potentially the future of the internet, and we see examples of that today with Fortnite and Roblox. Part of that future Metaverse is this bridge between the physical and digital world, and Cesium I think is going to be in a fantastic position to help provide that bridge. It’s funny because we’ve been working on the Metaverse for a decade, but I just realized that in the past six months, right?
Having this opportunity to bring all of this 3D geospatial data into a variety of those use cases for entertainment and gaming, but also for social and for the enterprise use cases is great. Then on the data side, we do see a lot of open data coming from federal, state or local governments, and we think that’s fantastic. That leads to a lot of innovation and a lot of uses of that data that maybe we didn’t realize when we were collecting it, right? Cesium being able to bring that into the 3D world, even for nontraditional GIS use cases – it’s quite inspiring.
Myrna James (17:54): The Metaverse as a Third Place
That’s great, I understand that video games like Roblox and Fortnite are considered Metaverses. My son is 16 and he’s currently obsessed with Roblox. And I read something a couple of years ago that Fortnite is (I’m sure it’s true for Roblox as well) providing “A Third Place” for teenagers online. It’s a place of belonging. It’s like a new way for people to feel that they belong, even though they’re online. That’s a fascinating concept to me, especially now when things are so challenging in society with lockdowns and we feel so disconnected physically. We can still be connected digitally as long as we’ve got some boundaries around it. I don’t think it’s good to be online 20 hours a day, but I really think that there are positive aspects to that.
The Third Place, you may know, is a trend. It’s a thing that’s identifiable as a place where you belong that is not your home (place number one), or your workspace (place number two). It is interesting how The Third Place has actually taken on whole new meaning now with what we’ve been going through globally with the lockdowns. It’s much more widespread and acceptable.
Patrick Cozzi: Yeah, I completely agree, and I’ve seen the same thing in my experience. When I was growing up, I would meet someone to go skateboarding at the park, and now it’s very common that everyone will meet in Fortnite. And then when the lockdowns came, people would hang out in Fortnite, right? And they’re still doing that. It’s really amazing from a geospatial perspective, right? We’re excited that maybe one day, folks will we playing something like Fortnite or Roblox using real-world scanned data.
Myrna James: I can see that transition. Right this minute, my son is downstairs playing Roblox, and what makes it acceptable for me is that hopefully he’s on with his two friends and he’s actually interacting with two people he knows in real life. I’ll be finding out in just a few minutes here!
Patrick Cozzi: I think it’s fantastic, and beyond that Third Place social experience, the other trend we see happening in the Metaverse is the empowerment of creators, right? Growing up in high school, I would program video games using Turbo Pascal, a little bit of Assembly, and Q Basic. Today, you see many more teenagers or even younger kids that are creating experiences, using tools, maybe programming, or maybe tools available by Roblox or Fortnite Creator, or even something like Unreal Engine. So, I think we’re really facilitating a lot of creativity in that Metaverse world. I think that’s really inspiring.
Myrna James: Oh, that’s really terrific. I hope that’s one of the directions we end up going in my family as well. Right before the lockdowns occurred, I had just started a new business of co-working space called The Third Place in Denver where we gathered and created that feeling with a few other women business owners. It was incredible. We came together and went to work and got to have a community of other people in this physical location where all kinds of collaboration was happening. That’s when I learned about the concept of a Third Place from one of my brilliant co-founders.
After the lockdown, we ended up not able to keep the business with everyone required to work from home. Now, I am concerned that since we are all becoming so comfortable in these digital Third Places that we’ll spend too much time online where we are more vulnerable to getting addicted to the algorithms and not enough time in person. Mental health studies show that we still need to interact IRL (in real life)!
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners?
Patrick Cozzi: Well, once again, I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you. I think we covered a good breadth of Cesium’s vision and hopefully our contributions to the community. I do just want to emphasize when we think about the future of 3D geospatial and what the Metaverse is, we hope that we’re empowering lots of software developers to build these future experiences.
Myrna James: That’s a great point. Thank you so much, Patrick. I really enjoyed this.
Patrick Cozzi: Yeah, my pleasure. Great job with everything.