Upstart Raises Stakes in GIS Market

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Upstart Raises Stakes in GIS Market

By John Makulowich
Senior Writer

With industry giants Microsoft and Oracle taking high-profile positions in geographic information systems, an aggressive upstart spawned from a federal lab program is trying to bid up the stakes in this growing sector.

Seattle-based LizardTech Inc. recently signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the U.S. Geological Survey to modify its Multi-Resolution Seamless Image Database technology, known as MrSID. A formal announcement on the partnership, which was inked in late December, has yet to hit the streets.

Under the pact, LizardTech will create a generic viewer for the agency's DOQ files and look at all the issues that surround distributing massive images. A DOQ, or digital ortho-photo quadrangle, is a computer image of an aerial photograph taken at about 40,000 feet.

The image, in which distortions from the shape of the ground surface and camera angle have been removed, combines the details of a photograph with the geometric qualities of a map. The first phase of the agreement will store and display over 3 terabytes of Geological Survey DOQ images.

LizardTech's technology addresses a long-standing problem the agency has faced in distributing its valued images - which average around 45 megabytes - to the general public. Such images are used across a broad spectrum of applications, including bridge and road construction and farming.

"We became interested in the technology because of the distribution problems we were having with DOQs," said Jim Mauck, cartographer with the National Mapping Division of the U.S. Geological Survey.

"While we started offering DOQs about three years ago in jpeg compression [a graphics file format], this was a bit cumbersome for non-GIS folks or nonprofessionals without sophisticated equipment," he said. "The fact that you can take multiple images, mosaic and compress them into a single image that a user can zoom in and out of is one of the major appeals of MrSID."

Images and image databases of any size can be accessed with as little as 2 megabytes of RAM, making it valuable for Internet applications. While compression ratios vary by image content and color depth, MrSID gets around 15:1 for gray scale and 50:1 for full color.

John R. Grizz Deal, LizardTech president and chief executive officer, is targeting mission-critical government and business applications worldwide and focusing on high-quality images. The company's focus is on being "the top geospatial data guys and not strictly tied to the GIS community. We are not interested in the complicated analysis of spatial data that GIS does."

It is not above LizardTech to try and set a new standard for displaying and viewing large images. In fact, the company worked with Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., for a short time on another cooperative research and development agreement between the software giant and the U.S. Geological Survey that is now yielding results.

And LizardTech officials anticipate that Oracle of Redwood Shores, Calif., will develop a Spatial Cartridge to read MrSID files. (See related story on page 30.)

LizardTech already offers a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop and is now working on a plug-in for the Netscape World Wide Web browser, which it expects to have ready this month.

LizardTech started in 1992 as a spinoff from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, N.M., where MrSID technology was initially developed under the guidance of Jonathan Bradley, a technical staff member. The company signed an exclusive agreement for the core code developed by the lab and produced a commercial version of MrSID. It moved to Seattle 18 months ago and has grown from three to 27 employees over the past year.

One of its earliest applications and successes was in the U.S. Library of Congress with the opening of its On-Line Map Archive last June. In that month, the library made its 4.5 million maps archive publicly available for the first time using MrSID.

Recent successes have come with an agreement in December with GAF (Gesellschaft Für Angewandte Fernerkundung mbH in Munich, Germany) and the USGS cooperative research and development agreement. The deal with GAF, the leading distributor of geospatial data and GIS tools in Europe, calls on the company to distribute MrSID software tools and technology throughout Europe and the world.

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