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Travel the Streets of Virtual Philly, Without Ever Breaking a Sweat!

August 30, 2007 By:
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This digital representation of Independence Hall is just one small part of the "Virtual Philadelphia" project.
Imagine taking a walk from the historic sites of Old City, passing by City Hall, then the skyscrapers along Market Street, and eventually ending up at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the August heat, you'd likely wind up covered in perspiration, as well as being downright pooped. But with the development of a new computer program called "Virtual Philadelphia," you could soon travel that same distance without leaving the comfort of your favorite armchair.

"Virtual Philadelphia" is a digital replica of Center City, with buildings and streets that look strikingly similar to the real thing. Developers at the Israeli company GeoSim Systems hope that their program will lure potential tourists looking to get a sense of the city before actually making the trip.

The program will officially be launched in late September or early October, according to Victor Shenkar, CEO of GeoSim Systems, located in Petach Tikvah, Israel.

Shenkar believes that the virtual city can eventually revolutionize Internet searches by actually showing users what to expect, rather than just listing it or picturing it in a still photo.

"What we can contribute is to visualize the place you are looking for," he says. "Today, [when using a search engine], you can get only an address and a dot on the map."

The digital city model of Philadelphia currently spans 200 city blocks, according to Shenkar, stretching from Race to Locust streets (north to south) and from the waterfront to the art museum (east to west).

The project is partially funded by the Center City District and the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, says Shenkar, who adds that both groups plan to provide a database with names of businesses to enhance the program's search function.

Danielle Cohn, vice president of marketing for the visitors bureau, hopes that the program will showcase the area's numerous restaurants and shops.

"We don't want people to stay at their desktop. We want people to come to Philadelphia and experience it for real," says Cohn. "This is a way to entice people to want to come."

Once launched, the program will be available at www.virtualphiladelphia.org, according to Elise Vider, spokeswoman for the Center City District.

Shenkar also feels that the digital city has potential uses in the real estate market.

"If an agency wants to show you a place to rent or buy, you can go to the virtual city and ask, 'Where is the neighboring school? What is the parking situation?' "

Once users enter "Virtual Philadelphia," they choose a spot on the map, then see an eye-level, 3-D view of the city that immediately surrounds them. They can then walk around at street level or even fly to get an arial view of the City of Brotherly Love.

"With a flight icon, you can become free as a bird and you can jump like Spiderman," explains Shenkar.

As much as it may sound like a video game, Shenkar insists that the program will not serve that function. The closest thing it may come to a game is by providing some "edu-tainment," as he calls it -- like a treasure hunt or monopoly feature to educate people about the city's different landmarks.

'A Good Place'

GeoSim Systems has created virtual replicas of other cities, including Milan and Lucca in Italy, Ramat Gan in Israel, and even parts of the University of Pennsylvania. Each of those virtual programs remain in various stages of development.

To build the site, Shenkar and his team went block by block, taking photographs every 20 meters and using a GPS system to link precise coordinates with GeoSim's computer system. They even used a small plane to get arial views of the city.

"We stoped 20,000 times, collected hundreds of thousands of ground photographs," he notes of his Philadelphia stops in 2001 and 2005.

Shenkar says that the company picked Philadelphia because it was not as large as some cities, like New York, and didn't have the "crazy topology" of hilly places like San Francisco.

"With its historic importance and 25 million visitors every year," he attests, "I thought it was a good choice."

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