Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This year, Santa is totally plugged in.

We've made a change to the NORAD Santa Tracker this year. In years past, we've created a .kmz file that users could download to watch the Big Man in Red travel around the globe on Christmas Eve using the Google Earth desktop client. This year, we're not offering a Google Earth client file. Instead, we're using the Google Earth Browser Plug-in, aka the Google Earth API, to embed the NORAD Tracks Santa Google Earth experience - replete with terrain relief, 3D buildings, and tilt-pan-rotate-zoom navigation - into a page on the NORAD Tracks Santa site. To get the Plug-in, visit http://earth.google.com and download Google Earth 5.1 - the Plug-in has been bundled with both the PC and Mac clients since Google Earth 5.1 came out of beta. The Google Earth Plug-In offers a couple of tantalizing advantages over the client-based experience:
  • Users can stay on the site. Because the Google Earth experience is now embedded on a web page within the site, users don't have to leave the site for 3D tracking. So, if they would like to return to the NORAD Tracks Santa Google Map--or any other page--it's just a back-button click away
  • It's "automatic." The NORAD Tracks Santa project is visited by users from all over the world with a wide range of technical skills and connection speeds. Last year, users were prompted to install Google Earth, download the .kmz file, then open the .kmz in Google Earth. For some less-than-technically-savvy users, this 3-part process was confusing and difficult. Using the Plug-in is much easier; if users have the lightweight client (aka, the Plug-in) installed, all they have to do is visit the NORAD Tracks Santa Google Earth page, and they'll see Santa in 3D. If users don't have the lightweight client installed, the Plug-in viewport displays a clear and easy prompt to start the download, after which the 3D tracker activates.
Elsewhere on the technical front, we've ported the 2-D tracking map to the new Maps API v3, our lightweight JavaScript API, and created two custom OverlayView extensions for it. The "cloud overlay" shows Santa spreading his sparkle and snow over his recent stops, and uses the Raphaƫl SVG/VML graphics Library to create cross-browser compatible blurs and shapes. The "smart infowindows" open in the direction of least resistance (above/below/left/right), to minimize map panning as the user browses around Santa's many stops. Feel free to use these in your own maps.
On December 24th, visit www.noradsanta.org and click on the "Track Santa in Google Earth" link. It's going to be (choose one):
  • Groovy (retros)
  • Wicked cool (east coasters)
  • Off the hook (gen Zs)
  • Plugged-In (developers)
Don't miss it.