Talk about learning to see four-dimensionally: The New York Times has an article about the Manhattana Project, an effort by an ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society to depict Manhattan Island as it looked over 400 years ago. Eric W. Sanderson, the ecologist, has written a book, “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City,” in which he describes “the old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife and mysterious people.”

A curious grad student, having bought Sanderson’s book, discovers electronic versions of the 18th-century British military maps Sanderson used, and overlays them on Google Maps. His friend writes an iPhone application, dubbed NYCPast, that uses the phone’s camera and GPS to place you on the map and simulate a view 400 years earlier, the same as Sanderson’s mash-up image, above, but at street level and in real time. The project evolves into an open-source Wikipedia of historic New York. Someone adds Sanborn maps to the overlay, another programmer uses Microsoft Photosynth to link photographic archives of New York City to the iPhone view. You can literally step through past photos, and the iPhone becomes a full-fledged virtual reality viewer, taking you back and forth through time.

Tourists rent iPhones with their Segways for tours of Lower Manhattan. The new complaint among city residents is tourists standing on the subway, iPhones in front of their faces, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the fossils they “see” outside. The trend is parodied in New Yorker cartoons and by New York Magazine

And somewhere, a woman in the back room of a small-town historical society downloads this program, and starts adding photos of her town.

[Henry Hudson’s View of New York via NYTimes]

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