Craig A. Hunter


Theodolite goes to the Great Wall of China

So there I was on Tuesday, sitting on the living room floor with my 7-month-old daughter, watching Apple's Special Event live stream on my MacBook while we played with some toys. About an hour into the Keynote, Tim Cook put up a "Life on iPad" video to show some amazing things customers have been doing with their iPads.

I imagine every developer sees these videos and hopes their app shows up; I know I always have. But in this case, something felt different. In addition to the usual feel-good stuff Apple always shows, they were demonstrating serious uses of the iPad, in settings ranging from medical to industrial, to hard-core sports and the outdoors. A couple minutes into the video, I was shocked to see my signature app, Theodolite HD, being used atop the Great Wall of China as an iPad user surveys the mountain scenery and architecture around him. Wow!

At that point, my mouth was agape and I was out-drooling my daughter (no small feat) even without toys in my mouth. I borrowed her spit cloth and collected myself, then started thinking about putting out a PR, updating my app description, getting the word out, etc. Later, I went back to re-watch the keynote, and paid some attention to the details. I noticed a few interesting things. First, here are a couple stills from the video showing Theodolite in use:

Theodolite (iPhone, iPod touch) and Theodolite HD (iPad, iPad mini) are augmented reality navigation apps that overlay information about position, altitude, bearing, inclination, range, and other geographical data on the device's live camera image, creating a sophisticated viewfinder (the name "theodolite" comes from a centuries-old surveying instrument that has become a "go-to" device for all types of land, sea, air, and space measurements; Lewis and Clark famously took one along while exploring the American West). Looking at the video, I was able to read the position, bearing, and time off Theodolite HD's screen and find the location, which ended up being about 32 miles NNW of Beijing, in an area of the Great Wall near Juyongguan that was built around 1200-1300 AD:

Now, Theodolite allows alternate GPS datums (reference systems used to convert GPS data to position/altitude) that I couldn't pick out from that video clip, there could be some location discrepancies depending on the model of iPad and how it makes use of iOS location services (wi-fi, cell, and/or GPS), and no two of the many mapping services I plugged coordinates into gave me the exact same position on a map. But using the scenery, time of day, sun position, approximate location, and bearing shown on the app's screen, this is the likely location of the video:

What I find interesting is that version 4.0 of Theodolite HD was used in Apple's video clip, and that version was just released on October 2 as an iOS 7 update. That means Apple shot this video, did editing, production, etc., within the last 20 days in order to show it during the Special Event. It really demontrates how much effort they put into their videos. Just think of the resources required to do this, for one short clip in one video highlight of a keynote. Sometimes it takes me 14-21 days just to finalize copy and artwork for a print ad, and here Apple is shooting video up on a mountain halfway around the world and getting it in front of a VIP audience in 20 days.

The other thing I noticed is that Theodolite HD was set to "screen movie" mode when the footage was shot. In that mode, the app will record a movie of the screen with all of the live viewfinder graphics overlaid, capturing exactly what the user sees in real time (it's great for documentation). That footage didn't make it into the keynote video, possibly because of a limitation in retina-screen iPads; they are the only video-capable iOS devices that can't actually render a movie at their native screen resolution, instead being limited to 1080p. Thus, Theodolite screen movies from retina iPads are instead rendered at 50% scale, to 1024x768. It will be interesting to see if the new retina iPad Air and mini models have overcome this limitation, but I suspect not.

I'm thrilled and grateful Apple included Theodolite in their video showing the cool and interesting things customers are doing with iPads, and I have always been blown away by some of the uses I hear about from customers on my end. There are serious things like avalanche research, tactical observation on the battlefield, search and rescue, and aircraft accident investigations. The app is an on-the-job tool for surveyors, architects, engineers, and scientists around the world. And regular people are using the app for sports, outdoor activities, exploration, and education.

I often see debates about whether the iPad is a "content-creation" or "content-consumption" device, but I think that's a simplistic way to look at it, likely drummed up by folks with limited focus. The iPad, along with apps from thousands of developers and the ingenuity and creativity of customers, has become a knowledge generation tool across the spectrum. It's being used out in the real world to obtain tangible results with a real impact on the way we live.

So that's how Theodolite made it to the Great Wall of China. Where will you take it on your next adventure?