The virtual world has never been more connected to the real one. Satellite imagery and geography markup language are all over the Web, and GPS receivers come built into cell phones and other everyday gadgets. All the overlords of Internet search – Google, MSN, Yahoo!, even Amazon’s A9.com – provide cartographic results embedded with information.

Augmented reality is the latest benchmark of the digital age.

How did we get here? This technology used to be top-secret government stuff. Then, in the 1980s, McDonald’s dumped thousands into buying satellite images and developing software called Quintillion, which predicted the growth of cities and school districts. Ever notice there’s always a McDonald’s where you’d expect one? The company looked down from the heavens and dropped new franchises wherever it saw the right combination of kids, interstates, and suburbs, using one of the first geographic information systems for business analysis.

In 2005, anyone can have a god’s-eye view. MapQuest began doing rudimentary online maps in 1996. Google acquired digital 3-D mapmaker Keyhole in 2004, and with the resulting Google Earth, explorers are able to find the nearest dry cleaner or tapas joint anywhere on the planet, a capacity that corporate advertisers are bound to exploit.

By Jacob Ward

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