Monday, October 26, 2009

Climate Change Tours by Google: Review

This is my second post discussing the Google Earth tours which promote the Climate Change summit at Copenhagen by Google. My earlier post discussed how they used video clips instead of GEarth plugin tours here. The introductory video tour is narrated by Al Gore and there are 3 additional tours with more to follow, in this post I'll discuss just the introductory tour. I was excited to see these tours as I think using Google Earth is an excellent tool to communicate climate change science to the public (as I said in this talk).

Count the Ball passes: Before I start the review I want to make a point about attention and motion. If you haven't seen the 'count the number of basketball passes' test before watch this video and try and count the number of passes made to people wearing white shirts. Reading anything below the embedded video is cheating!:

How many were there? You're very clever. Did you notice anything else about the video? If not watch it again. The point is that in any view where multiple bodies are moving its very difficult to keep track of anything that you haven't been directed to watch. So most people viewing the video miss seeing the Gorilla walking across the screen even though under normal circumstances they would do so. For more detail on attention see no. 8 on PsyBlog. This inability to split our attention is a relevant point for our discussion as you will see.

"Confronting Climate Change" tour Review:
I felt the tour used some GEarth tools in a smart way but tried to cover too much in the time available, they may have done better to have removed some sections and cover the remaining content in more detail.

  • Excellent Commentary: Having Al Gore narrate the tours adds to their value, it carries real cachet to have him do this.
  • Good References: There are numerous footnote references to the data that was used to put together the tour. Always good to see.
  • Innovative Timeline Use: They make innovative use of the timeline - I haven't seen many tours where the authors use the timeline this much. Combining the timeline and tours has the potential to be very powerful and its used here on some data that is excellent for timeline animation (e.g. melting of the Greenland icecap)
  • Explicitly Mentioning Pause: They explicitly show users how to pause the tour and encourage people to do this. This is a very neat use of tour.
  • Tour tab control: The thumbnail icons and titles to control which tour plays are useful controls.
  • Moving Images: The tour starts with multiple images depicting climate change moving across a spinning globe. There are too many moving objects for the user to keep track of - the point the gorilla video made. Compare to this GEarth tour done by CBS where they had static images appearing above a static globe, I think the CBS one is much better.
  • Talk about what's on Screen: Towards the end of the tour the commentary doesn't relate directly to what is showing on screen: We are shown imagery of Kenya with the on screen text: "Kenya: Forest, water, Livelihoods" while Al talks about how we should "use this tool to get involved". This splits the user's attention, they don't know whether to follow the audio or visual communication and end up doing neither well. The Gorilla video is illustrates how important it is to avoid splitting attention.
  • Flights too Low and Quick: Many of the virtual flights in the tour are too quick and low for users to follow where they have been taken. Virtual flights should be looped i.e. to altitude and then back down low again and done at slower speed. This allows users to follow landmarks on screen, work out where they are and avoid becoming disorientated.
  • No annotation: At one point we are shown a time sequence of the Larsen ice shelf collapsing but it isn't clear which actual bit of the shelf is collapsing. The remedy would be to use an arrow or polygon annotation to guide the users eye to the right location. There are text annotations on the ground overlays during this part of the tour but they couldn't be read as they were too small and upside down. They should have been removed.
  • Bangladesh Scale: At 3.10 mins we are shown a view of Bangladesh flooding but because there are no landmarks it's very difficult to get a sense of the scale of the view. It needed an annotation to give a sense of scale, for example a line marking out 100 miles in distance on the ground. For an example see 30 seconds into the tour experiment I posted here where I use a 10 mile marker.
  • Antipodes Problem: One of the issues of virtual globes is that you can't see the whole world at once. At 1.32 mins into the tour an overlay is used that covers the whole globe and the globe is rotated to view how it looks. It would have been better to either use the new Google flash map API to show the world as a flat map projection and use the overlay on that or to only focus in on the changes of one part of the world as is done at 1.51 mins where the tour shows what is happening at the North pole.
  • Timeline Description: I have described this use of timeline feature as innovative, however, it was also confusing in the tour. If you are displaying a time sequence you have to describe it in the audio track so that users understand what they are seeing. We kept jumping about to different points on the time line with no proper explanation. Labels on screen were used to show the user what time the imagery related to but they weren't adequate because there was too much else going on in the view: The Gorilla effect yet again.

Climate change is the most important challenge facing humanity IMHO. GEarth is a wonderful tool to communicate the issue to the public but I think Google could improve the tours that they have yet to release.

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