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3D Maps come to Photo Ephemeris Web PRO

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Overhead view of 3D Sphere

We're delighted to announce the availability of 3D maps in Photo Ephemeris Web PRO.

Rather than use an off-the-shelf 3D mapping solution, we've built our 3D functionality into the existing 3D Celestial Sphere page. The primary reason is that, excellent as they are, many of the 3rd party 3D mapping solution limit how the maps can be annotated and lit, and heavy customisation becomes complicated and likely to break in the future.

We also wanted to implement a few lessons learned along the way from TPE 3D, our iOS app. Users have asked for:

  • Better performance
  • Higher map zoom levels
  • Satellite maps
  • Much easier navigation

We've been able to deliver on all three of those in Photo Ephemeris Web by fundamentally changing our implementation approach.

Performance has been improved by limiting the amount of terrain we attempt to load at once and taking a much more performant approach to processing and rendering it on the screen - basically, things now mostly hit your computer's GPU rather than CPU. As a result, on a 5-year old laptop (my development system), the 3D scene renders consistently at 60 frames per second - that's the standard you want to be hitting.

The amount of data downloaded per 'scene' is reduced, as are the number of network requests. Things don't appear instantly - there's around 2-3MB of terrain data to download each time - but they're generally pretty zippy on a reasonable broadband connection.

The max Map Zoom Level in the 3D scene is a couple of levels higher than in TPE 3D (at the expense of loading additional terrain) - these things are all trade-offs.

Nāpali Coast

Additionally, for PRO subscribers, there is a satellite map now available in the default map types list, so you can view that in the 3D Sphere page. (Google Maps requires us to use its own mapping library which does not allow for "painting" a custom 3D terrain with their map data.) That said, I'll hold to my view that satellite maps are a poor choice for an application that simulates real world lighting. As photographers, you're generally interested in light at each end of the day, or at night (Moon, Milky Way). At those times, satellite maps, particularly in areas with lots of green vegetation, suck up 'golden hour' light to make a dark, muddy mess. Additionally, they have baked in shadows that almost certainly conflict with what you want to see, resulting in visual confusion. And at night they can be so dark as to be illegible. However, if you want them, they're there - any in mid-day light in attractive places, they can look great!

3D Sphere showing sunrise over Rocky Mountain National Park

Navigation: in TPE 3D, all navigation is done in a 3D environment, which means you need to know 'how to fly' - many people find this tricky, especially on smaller screens. In Photo Ephemeris Web, you do your navigation - finding a location, setting the pin positions - on the 2D Map page and then optionally view the 3D Sphere to understand the interaction of the light. The camera orbits the primary red map pin, so it's much harder to get lost, or fly off in an unintended direction.

One rule-of-thumb to remember: shadows are only cast from terrain within the 3D Sphere. If you're looking at sunrise over the plains of eastern Colorado hitting the Rockies, you need to be well zoomed out in order to get the timing of 'alpenglow' correct. We're looking at some better solutions for this particular case, but for now, stay aware.

If you'd like to know more, be sure to head over to read the comprehensive new tutorial and video:

Using Photo Ephemeris Web, Part 9: Maps and Terrain in the 3D Celestial Sphere

We'd love to hear your feedback on the new functionality - we have plans for some nifty enhancements that should make life for moon photographers in particular even better!

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