January 17, 2009 --Researchers at the University of Maryland have developed what they call a four-dimensional map that will help direct traffic away from hazardous road conditions and accidents. With more than 2 million people expected to flood into Washington this Tuesday, the software is a gift to the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia departments of transportation.
At the university's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology, several large flat-screen TVs are hooked up to what looks like your average PlayStation 3 joystick. Taking hold of the controls, you can fly around 3-D images of the Capitol grounds, Georgetown and virtually every other part of the city.
"Some of it is satellite photography; some of it is aerial photography," says CATT's director, Michael Pack. He points out, "It's the same type of images you would see on Google Earth."
The difference from above is what you see below. Models of cars and trucks bustle down Wisconsin Avenue, and on U.S. Route 50 near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway a car is off the road owing to a traffic accident. A few moments later, cars start to slow as rain and sleet falls from the sky. "All of this occurs in real time, hence the fourth dimension," says Pack.
Messages in the shape of road signs appear in the simulated sky, pointing out information to traffic controllers. One says "Roadwork" and another ominous, red message simply displays an exclamation mark.
The model doesn't uncover any new information. "This is a way for emergency management officials to quickly comprehend what's going on in a wide area," Pack says. He says on a typical day the District Department of Transportation receives a list of 70 to 80 traffic problems regarding the roadways. "Typically they come in the form of a text message or e-mail," says Pack. He goes on to warn that, "if you forget something, the consequences of not knowing what's going on could be pretty bad."
Pack says this is the first time the four-dimensional model has been tested on such a large scale. And his crew has been working around the clock to prevent any snags. One traffic accident, he says, could mean thousands of motorists being diverted.
Currently, the 4-D imaging software is exclusively for government use and a version for the public is not available.