NIMA goes Hollywood

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency is turning to Hollywood to help soup up the maps and satellite imagery it provides to the military services and intelligence community.

NIMA currently is evaluating a highly sophisticated system for storing retrieving and manipulating images recorded by satellites aircraft and other means. The technology was developed by Cinebase Software Inc. a Sherman Oaks Calif.-based company whose customers come largely from the entertainment industry and whose home base lies only about five miles from the famous Hollywood sign.

The NIMA-Cinebase relationship is part of an emerging trend in which the Defense Department NASA and other agencies reap the benefits of tools that Hollywood has developed to manipulate huge digital image files to create animation explosion sequences and other visual effects found in such blockbuster films as "Jurassic Park " "Toy Story " and "Batman and Robin."

"DOD is no longer the leading edge in these technologies. It's Disneyland it's Warner Bros." said Rear Adm. J.J. Dantone Jr. director of NIMA. "Again you know who does this best? Hollywood. They do video."

The technology is being evaluated under a $13 million-plus contract awarded to Sarnoff Corp. Cinebase is charged with implementing the user interface and browsing and distribution mechanisms for the project.

No Longer Trick Photography

The Cinebase software will let NIMA customers retrieve and manipulate images with a dexterity previously unattainable according to company officials. For one small patch of the planet - a foreign military base for example - NIMA may have hundreds of photos or video images that were recorded at different times from different angles using infrared technology or other recording methods.

NIMA might also use the technology to keep track of descriptive information or "metadata " about an image. Knowing how an image was created can let image analysts make decisions about how to manipulate an image for the best effect. For example an analyst may be trying to determine whether an object in an image is a tank or some other vehicle. If he knows how that image was produced he can make decisions on what background colors to use to get a clearer picture of the object.

The Cinebase technology also makes it possible for NIMA users to view and manipulate pieces of an image. That way users do not clog up a network with unnecessary data when it transmits an image.

Cinebase plans to go after more federal business said Carlos Montalvo vice president of marketing for Cinebase. "Clearly the federal government is the largest [single] depository of visual images " Montalvo said. "These images can be a powerful tool in policy development decision-making and information/education."

NASA is one agency already tapping into new digital imagery technology offered by companies such as Cinebase. NASA has incorporated animation into instructional videos on projects such as a 12-foot wind tunnel. A recent video on the tunnel took about three and a half weeks to create and when completed offered up a two-minute 3-D fly-through tour of the tunnel and what goes on inside.

Ed Shilling television group leader at the documentation technology branch at NASA's Ames Research Center in California explained that the need to educate is largely the motivation behind production of digitally animated videos. "The task of trying to communicate basic scientific concepts in very clear concise formats has been a big push [at NASA] " he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey and other Interior Department branches that monitor the planet also may find help in Hollywood-spawned video technologies.

"The kind of applications that you talk about are for USGS probably most appropriate when we're trying to do some of the work we do on hazards whether those are things related to floods or volcanic eruptions [where] you're using real-time videos and freezing frames and examining images " said Stephen Guptill scientific adviser at USGS.

The government in fact helped spawn some of this technology. For example more than a decade ago DOD called for private-sector companies to help create the tools it needed to generate digital maps from satellite and aerial imagery said Curt Ward director of NIMA's Geospatial Information and Service Office.

Hollywood became one of the most eager users of the new technology said Alan Brown the president of Cinebase.

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