Cataloguing The World’s Disappearing Places In Stunning, 360-Degree Video

Catalog.Earth wants to make sure people can explore threatened places in virtual reality that will soon be gone in real life.

If you’ve never been to Shepherd Glacier, you’ll never be able to go. In the mid-1960s, the glacier sprawled over 250,000 square meters; by 2010, the ice was basically gone and the rock was bare. It’s one of at least 125 glaciers in Glacier National Park in Montana that no longer exist.


The park’s remaining two dozen glaciers may be gone in about 15 years. A new project called Catalog.Earth hopes to capture places like the glaciers before they disappear, in 360 video that will be shared freely online.

The project’s founders, two interaction design grad students at the School of Visual Arts, were inspired after learning about the quickly-shrinking Columbia Glacier in Alaska. While they found striking data about the glacier’s retreat, and some interesting before-and-after photos, there wasn’t any publicly-accessible video that they could work with to make a visualization.

“We saw an opportunity there, with all the technology now available with 360 cameras, to actually start archiving these places,” says David Al-Ibrahim, who started Catalog.Earth with Saba Singh. “We started talking to some of the researchers and geologists who worked at places like Svalbord, and Alaska, and they got really excited about this idea.”

The new footage can be used by people who want to virtually explore places after they’ve changed, either with virtual reality headsets or clicking and dragging to explore a video on YouTube. Researchers can also mine the videos for new data, and designers can turn the footage into new visualizations.

A virtual reality tour of a site can be a powerful way to tell the story of a place. Al-Ibrahim tells the story of a friend who recently showed her boyfriend’s father how to use a Google Cardboard headset. He had never left the Midwest. “He was viewing a summit of Mount Everest when he fell silent and started to cry,” he says. “She said that seeing him so emotional moved them both to tears as well.”

This summer, they plan to travel to the Columbia Glacier to show how to take the videos. “One of the reasons that we’re making this big trip to Alaska is to see how much we can do with the equipment we’re bringing, and what that process looks like, to kind of create this toolkit for other non-professional video makers to do the same,” he says.


While videographers have experimented with taking 360-degree video in a variety of ways, including hacking together six GoPros pointing in every direction, Al-Ibrahim and Singh plan to mainly use the new Samsung Gear 360. “It’s about the size of a golf ball,” Al-Ibrahim says. “It’s got two cameras that are like fish eyes, so that they create the whole experience, and they’re light enough that you can attach it to a drone, as well as use it in a stationary or other moving space.”

It’s easy enough to use that they’re hoping researchers and others will start to capture footage of threatened sites around the world–ideally soon enough to help save some of them before they disappear. “We can work to make these places seem more valuable, by telling their story, and make the case for working harder to preserve them,” he says. “It’s also making sure that when some of them go, we have more complete archives of what those histories are.”

Catalog.Earth is crowdfunding on Kickstarter.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.