RALEIGH -- The folks who work at Microsoft are hardly dunces, but even they were surprised at the complexity of putting a seamless mosaic of planet Earth on the Internet.
"We knew the Earth was not flat; we did think it was round," says Dr. Jim Gray, a researcher at Microsoft leading the project.
In fact, the Earth is more pear-shaped, says John Hoffman, president of Raleigh-based Aerial Images. His satellite photography company initiated the idea of making images of Earth available for everyone with a computer.
It turns out that developing a truly spherical database was a lot harder than anyone imagined. But much of the world should be available this summer on the Internet. The ordinary Web surfer will be able to download an image for as little as $8.95.
The unusual partnership bringing this about includes Aerial Images and Microsoft, and Kodak, Digital Equipment Corp. and Sovinformsputnik, a Russian government agency that acts as a liaison to commercial companies.
Last month, a Russian satellite was launched from Kazahkstan to take high-resolution, 2-meter photographs of the world. The southeastern United States, Russia and parts of South America were the focus this trip. The satellite, the first of four, returned last week.
Such photos have never been available for commercial use.
"Here is a new way to see ourselves," Hoffman says. "This really is a new geography."
When the project of photographing the world is completed in 1999, the pictures will make up the world's largest digital atlas, Hoffman says.
The digital map will take up one terabyte or a million megabytes, Gray says. All the "html" pages on the Web do not equal one terabyte, he says.
"This is an advertisement for our software," says Gray, who compares the project's importance to the Guttenberg Bible. "We want to show that the Microsoft software can store very large databases, and this is a large database."
Microsoft was looking for someone with lots of information to store when it came across Aerial Images. They met in an appropriate manner -- on the Internet. Microsoft already had digital photos of this country from the U.S. Geological Survey, but it wanted pictures of other countries.
With 2-meter photos, you can differentiate between conifers and deciduous trees, but you can't separate the oaks from the maples. You can count cars in a parking lot, but you can't tell if they're Fords or Chevys, although you can separate the pickup trucks from the cars.
Some foreign governments, such as India, sell 5-meter photos. In those pictures, cars in a parking lot are just a blob.
Other countries, including the United States, have 2-meter satellite photos, but Russia was the country willing to deal, Hoffman says.
He came up with the idea of selling satellite photos for commercial use in 1992. The first satellite, launched in May 1996, never got into orbit.
Now, competition is heating up, says Roger Crystal of Portland, Ore., president of the Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. In December, a Colorado company launched a satellite that got into orbit, but didn't operate. Another Colorado company plans to launch a satellite later this year, he says.
"It's an exciting time," Crystal says.
But it's also a time when the industry is questioning its ethics, he says. Companies could sell high-resolution photos to foreign governments whose policies are at odds with those of the United States, he says. The industry should set its own rules before the government steps in, he says.
Satellite photography no longer is a pie-in-the-sky technology for only the military and mapping experts. As early as July, the new photos will be available on Microsoft's TerraServer, an Internet site that can house images totaling more than 1 trillion bytes of information.
Then, the photos can be downloaded by people who have zoning proposals before a town board; real estate agents who want to show how close a house is to schools and shopping centers; or a neighborhood that wants to map how the area is changing.
"It's consumer-friendly. You don't have to be a remote sensing expert to use it," Hoffman says.
And you don't have to be rich. Access to the TerraServer is free. Downloading an image will cost as little as $8.95. Kodak will print photographs, ranging in size from pictures the size of those that sit on office desks to posters, for $20 to $30.
Typically, satellite photos sell for $30 to $50 a square kilometer, with the cost of a print at $100 to $150, Hoffman says. Aerial photography is even more expensive.
"If you hire a plane to fly over an area and take pictures, that can easily cost $1,000," Hoffman says. "You can do this for under $50."
Large-scale photos can be used by governments to help with matters of worldwide importance, such as rain forest depletion, or those of only local interest, such as planning 911 systems. Pamlico and Robeson counties are among those that have bought archived photos for local projects.
The archived photos come from Russia's already existing collection of satellite imagery, taken mostly by spy satellites during the Cold War. They're available on the TerraServer site now.
One major project will involve photographing parts of Venezuela, Brazil and Columbia so those countries can map future rain forest depletion. These photos will be some of the first satellite images of that area, Hoffman says.
"The Russians never targeted that area," he says. "It got very, very little coverage."
The photos may help bring peace to part of the world. Both Peru and Ecuador sought photos of their border, in dispute for 62 years now. Aerial Images sat down with representatives of the two countries and the U.S. State Department and agreed to provide the same photos to both countries.
"That area has never been mapped," Hoffman says. "This will help them determine a border. I feel kind of honored to be able to contribute to that."