Stanford team puts campus on map; wins Google Earth 3-D modeling contest

Google Earth
Stanford Quad in Google Earth

Recently graduated senior Joseph Bergen is more familiar with the architectural intricacies of Stanford's Main Quad than the average observer. After spending about five hours trying to capture every exterior face of the structure on film for a digital 3-D modeling project—snapping nearly 400 pictures—Bergen noticed the subtle differences between the history and math corners, as well as the strange looks from his peers.

"Students definitely thought I was a tourist," Bergen said.

But all the effort paid off. Bergen and nine other students worked together to map the Stanford campus in 3-D and emerged as one of seven teams to win a contest hosted by Google to create 3-D models of their respective college campuses for the search giant's geographic information feature, Google Earth.

More than 300 teams from across the United States and Canada took part in Google's "Build Your Campus in 3D Competition," using software developed by the Mountain View company to create digitized models of their campuses. The entries of the seven winning teams have been added to Google Earth, which integrates layers of satellite imagery, maps and 3-D buildings.

"It's pretty gratifying," said Steven Lehrburger, a graduating senior who led Stanford's team with Bergen. "It's nice to be able to see something that's there because of your hard work."

In addition to having their entries displayed on Google Earth, the winners were invited to the Google headquarters for four days, Aug. 6-9. They attended workshops, met with professional 3-D modelers, got a grand tour of the compound and enjoyed the famous free lunch.

Winning teams from Purdue University, Concordia University, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Dartmouth College and the University of Minnesota joined the Stanford team at the Googleplex.

Early on, Lehrburger and Bergen had decided that the best way to have a dedicated and cohesive team would be to structure it as a student-initiated course (SIC). They served as co-instructors for the two-hour classes, which met on Monday and Wednesday afternoons during the spring quarter (the competition had already started on Jan. 1). The course was sponsored by the School of Engineering's Architectural Design Program, and those who signed up became the team. John Barton, a lecturer in architecture, served as the faculty adviser throughout the competition.

Most of the students had never used SketchUp, Google's 3-D modeling software, so the quarter began with the co-instructors giving lessons on how to use the program, which according to Lehrburger, is "not terribly complicated." To ease students into using the modeling program, he and Bergen assigned less elaborate buildings during the first few weeks.

They originally intended on modeling about 20 buildings per week, but it didn't take them long to realize their goal of completing most of the structures on campus might have been too tall an order.

"We'd initially planned to do nearly all the buildings on campus," Lehrburger said. "But we underestimated the time it was going to take. I think we thought the learning curve was going to be a little bit better than it actually was, so we had to readjust our plans."

Though they were proud of their final outcome and hard work—Lehrburger and Bergen worked late into the night as they got closer to deadline—neither of the team leaders was overly optimistic. They had modeled 94 out of the 300 or so buildings on campus and worried their model of Stanford would be considered incomplete.

"Near the end of the project Steven and I were concerned that we didn't have a critical mass of buildings on campus to seriously compete," said Bergen.

So when Lehrburger got a call early one morning in July notifying him of the win, he and the rest of the team were pleasantly surprised. The judges, it seems, were won over by quality, not quantity.

"It was very clear that the team from Stanford paid a great deal of attention to detail and thoroughness," said Paul Seletsky, director of digital design at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York City and one of the competition's judges.

The winning teams were selected by a panel of six judges, all of whom are experts in the fields of architecture, modeling and digital design. In addition to meticulousness, the judges based their decisions on an entry's usability in Google Earth, its aesthetic appeal and a balance between high detail and low file size.

Meanwhile, a welcome but unintended consequence of the team's success is the increased notoriety of Stanford's fledgling Architectural Design Program, offered within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

"It's been nice because the students have brought some attention to Stanford's Architectural Design Program with their win in such a big competition," said Barton.

The architectural design team wasn't the only group from Stanford that entered the competition—teams sponsored by the Humanities Center and the School of Engineering also competed.

Besides Lehrburger and Bergen, Stanford's winning team included Anh Tran, Alexia Nielsen, Nthando Thandiwe, Joachim De Lombaert, Ellis Lau, Brian Truebe, Preston Rutherford and Daniel MacDougall.

The team's digital modeling of Stanford can be viewed by locating the campus on Google Earth and then clicking on the "3D buildings" button. Those without Google Earth can see aerial views of the models by going to Google's "3D Warehouse" website and searching for the Stanford University collection.

Kim Segall is an intern at the Stanford News Service.