In the course of a presentation on mapping technologies yesterday, quite a few interesting applications came up.
Mapping technologies freely available today include Google Earth, Google Maps, and Microsoft's Virtual Earth (available to the consumer as Live Search Maps service).
Live Search Maps is a cut-down equivalent to Google Maps - and of less value in Australia thus far. But beyond a simple map service, these technologies have more meaning behind the scenes - in what can be done with the underlying technologies. The mapping engines of Google Maps and Virtual Earth can be used in a variety of contexts, some rather distant from the core consumer services provided. For example, I was told of Virtual Earth being used to navigate ultra-high resolution images of human eyes. In effect, the technology has been transferred to a very useful medical application. By extention, the possibilities are endless.
Under the hood, the technologies simply constitute mechanisms to navigate through a physical landscape of any dimensions or locations. No reason this can't include (with the appropriate data sets) maps of the moon, Mars, the known universe, right on down to any physical form that has been represented in sufficient detail. To this can be added third-party data for a variety of purposes. This is already being done to plot specific sets of geographical points, but it can also include representations of weather information, 3D rendered objects, older photos or created/imagined photos. You could thus superimpose on the present a planned future (and so see a full context for this new wing for Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art), or even an imagined future. You could superimpose the past. It could be quite valuable for analysing history or archaeology. You could also look at a putative past, such as a different plan for the Sydney Opera House.
In a broader sense, this is a demonstration that technologies that have emerged over the past five to ten years are likely to have a much more profound impact on us than some of the comparatively trivial applications available today. If it is surprising that the free distribution (of much of these technologies) is viable in a business sense - and much of it has proven so - then it may also surprise us what we will be able to do with little effort and no cost in the future.