REBECCA ROBERTS, Host:
The crowds are already starting to pour in to Washington, but the big question for traffic planners is: How do you get a million-plus inaugural visitors out? The secret weapon: something called four-dimensional imaging. This is Science Out of the Box.
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ROBERTS: I'm on the road headed towards the University of Maryland, where researchers have developed what they call a four-dimensional map. It shows how road accidents, bad weather, stupid drivers, and even a million or so extra tourists affect city traffic. The transportation departments of D.C., Virginia and Maryland are going to use the technology for the first time this week, which is a little bit like testing your parachute in midair.
Traffic on Route 50 slowed me down, and I was late getting to UMD, but the university's Michael Pack already knew that before I walked through the door.
Mr. MICHAEL PACK (Director, Center for Advanced Transportation Technology, University of Maryland School of Engineering): We actually saw there was a vehicle fire along your route. It might have been a little past where you were getting off, but the traffic congestion may have backed up.
ROBERTS: Pack is the director of the university's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology. In the labs, students sit around computer screens of various sizes. The biggest screen is attached to a video-game joystick. Pack takes the controls and calls up a virtual world of cars buzzing past D.C. monuments.
Mr. PACK: Some of it's satellite photography, some of it's aerial photography. It's the same type of images that you might see on something like Google Earth.
ROBERTS: But on this image, when the weather changes, rain and snow starts to fall. And when the traffic bogs down, large street signs pop up into the virtual sky. They say things like traffic hazard, construction, and one ominous sign just displays an exclamation mark. It all happens in real time, hence, the fourth dimension.
Mr. PACK: This is a way to help the emergency management officials comprehend quickly what's going on throughout a wide area. Normally, these emergency management officials might have a - on just, on a normal day, a list of 70 or 80 accidents or traffic problems that they're having to monitor through e-mails, paging alerts, and if you forget something, the consequences of not being fully aware of what's going on could be pretty bad.
ROBERTS: Tuesday will be anything but normal, and one accident could mean a lot of diverted traffic. And Michael Pack says this is the first time his 4-D map has been tested.
Mr. PACK: This program is really brand new. This is the first time this visualization is ever going to be used by anyone operationally, so it's exciting. The students are excited. I'm excited about it. They've been in here working around the clock to try to get things ready.
ROBERTS: It's a little bit like having your first football game be the Super Bowl, you know?
Mr. PACK: (Soundbite of laughter) That's a really good analogy. I have to go in the locker room and throw up now.
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ROBERTS: Seeing the 4-D map is a lot cooler than just talking about it. There's video of the display at npr.org.