Look Out Below

A digital tree grows in Denver.

As Alan Prendergast wrote in his profile of Denver-based MapQuest, the realm of internet mapping services is all about location, location, location. These days, however, the name of the game is not just digitally locating a specific location, it's rendering that location in eye-popping, vertigo-inducing three-dimensions.

Microsoft and Google are hard at work tackling this challenge for their respective free 3D mapping programs (Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth), and they've both chosen Denver as one of the battlegrounds to test-drive their textured 3D mapping capabilities.

The results are two completely interactive, disturbingly realistic (with some glaring exceptions) digital Denvers -- the practical points of which completely escape us, but are still cool places in which you can zip around like Spiderman.

Here's the geeky breakdown on these two, micro-processed Mile High Cities:

-To see the textured 3D Denver of Microsoft Virtual Earth, download and install the program, search for your favorite downtown location, and then try not to vomit as you zoom in from outer space. You'll find three-dimensional buildings stretching in all directions, from North High to the far reaches of East Colfax to the Tech Center (which looks pleasingly less sprawling and vacuous than the real thing). Sure, there are still pockets of flat wasteland in the middle of downtown, but with all the crappy Denver parking lots, that's the way it really is. Many of the structures, however, look pretty bland, like flat-surfaced, vaguely textured building blocks (the Central Library, with its cylindrical tower re-shaped into a rectangle, looks downright surreal). And the Microsoft modelers obviously took one look at Libeskind's schizophrenic Hamilton Building and threw in the towel: The art museum wing is as flat as a pancake.

-The 3D Denver in the newest version of Google Earth works much the same way, although you have to find it first by clicking on "3D Buildings" in the "Layers" window, then clicking on "Best of 3D Warehouse." Oh, the tedium. Google's buildings are ridiculously nuanced and detailed, from each individual cable in the Millennium Bridge to the sign on the Denver Fire Department Line Shop. (Attention, Google employees: Get a life.) This Denver, however, is pretty sparse, and features a curious selection of buildings. For example, while the new Platte Street Vitamin Cottage is fully built and open for business, the site of the Hamilton Building is still occupied by a parking lot. Wishful thinking by architecture snobs, perhaps? You can even build your own 3D models, which might get chosen to be added to the official map. So those of you who want to re-create all the massive, dirty snowdrifts still clogging up downtown, have at it.

For those not blessed with a computer smart enough to handle these program (they nearly short-circuited Westword's mainframe), you can watch a video of 3D Google Denver in action here .

So which 3D Denver takes top honors? We never decided. We got bored with it all and went out to play in the real thing.— Joel Warner

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun