In late 2009, a visit to Chattanooga on Google Earth, the software giant's online digital globe, showed a featureless desert, in which buildings were flat images pasted on the landscape.
Google Earth several years ago added a feature allowing users to give cities a sense of depth by creating 3-D models of buildings using the company's SketchUp design software and submitting them to the virtual map.
During the Chattanooga Stand 48Hour Launch community visioning process on Nov. 13, 2009, Smart Furniture creative directors/founders Karen and Stephen Culp started Chattanooga 3D. This nonprofit collaborative organization of designers, architects, engineers and students began building out Chattanooga's digital twin.
Within two weeks, they added a dozen models and have continued - with help from other users - to upload new ones at a steady pace. Three years later, a trip to virtual Chattanooga on Google Earth shows more than 100 models representing most major downtown buildings, as well as peripheral locations such as Southside, North Shore and Glass Street.
What started as "a small experiment in civic engagement" has turned into a valuable tool for regional marketing and tourism, the group's co-founders said.
"The project has made Chattanooga more accessible to all kinds of people and organizations, including local residents, tourists, public officials, artists, planners, architects, developers and business people," Stephen and Karen Culp wrote in an emailed statement.
Although it lags behind Atlanta and Nashville, Chattanooga's digital downtown is much better populated than other medium-size cities in the Southeast, including Jackson, Miss. (175,000), Knoxville (180,000), Huntsville, Ala. (181,000), Mobile, Ala. (195,000), Fayetteville, N.C. (204,000) and Birmingham, Ala. (212,000).
In 2010, Chattanooga 3D was one of 160 teams that participated in Google's first Model Your Town Competition alongside groups from Zielona Góra, Poland; Hattiesburg, Miss.; Cork, Ireland; and the winning team from Barranco, Peru.
The organization also has been featured in Google's SketchUp blog and was a finalist last year for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce Kruesi Award for innovative local products and services.
From its foundation as an independent startup, Chattanooga 3D eventually entered a partnership with River City Co., who initiated extensive modeling efforts downtown for use in marketing and business recruitment campaigns.
That effort helped one Chattanooga 3D modeler, Wes Mohney, to find a career.
After graduating from the University of Georgia at Athens with a degree in landscape architecture in 2009, Mohney was struggling to find work when he became involved in Chattanooga 3D.
He and two architecture students were hired by River City to create the downtown models. When funding for that effort ran out after several months, Mohney said, he was contacted by the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau to continue modeling downtown.
Sensing a trend, Mohney then applied for a business license and founded Market3D, a geo-modeling and visualization firm. Unlike Chattanooga 3D, which was purely nonprofit, Market3D charges for services such as re-creating and displaying building designs in Google Earth or creating virtual tours to help clients inform and entice investors.
"Without Chattanooga 3D, I wouldn't be where I am today," Mohney said, adding that even casual users can benefit from using the service.
"It enables anyone with an Internet connection to visit any location on the planet," he added. "It's really an amazing tool for anyone who wants to leave their current location ... without leaving their chair."
Building a new world
At a June 6 event, Google announced a new 3-D modeling service for Google Earth that automatically would create comprehensive models of every building in many major cities using flyovers by planes equipped with special cameras.
By automatically generating accurate models at a much faster rate than individual modelers could, this new creation method may make user modeling outmoded, but Chattanooga 3D's co-founders remain confident their group helped position the city to take advantage of these and other future advances.
"We ... launched this knowing ... that there may be benefits of this project down the road that we haven't identified yet," they wrote. "Google Earth is emerging as an interactive platform unto itself, arguably as powerful as any information, social media or promotional platform out there.
"But the idea is to get started now so that when this platform begins to truly bloom, we're in the garden."
VISITING GOOGLE EARTH
There are two methods for accessing Google Earth:
Via Google Maps
1. Visit maps.google.com and search for "Chattanooga."
2. Place your mouse cursor on the box in the upper right corner of the map that reads Satellite. Another box should appear next to it saying Earth. Click it.
3. You will be prompted to download and install the Google Earth plug-in. The file is about 87 megabytes.
4. Once installed, the modeled buildings in Chattanooga and other cities will appear, so long as Google Earth mode is selected in Google Maps.
VIA AN INDEPENDENT PROGRAM
1. The Google Earth program can be downloaded for free from earth.google.com for Windows (XP or later) or Mac (OS X 10.5.0 or later).
2. Once the installer is downloaded, run it and the program will finish downloading.
3. To view 3D models in Google Earth, load the program and look on the left side of the screen under the setting labeled Layers. Ensure that the box for 3D Buildings is checked.