Jan. 20, 2009 -- As millions of inauguration visitors threaten to snarl traffic across the entire Washington, D.C., metro area today, a few lucky federal officials are perched in front of large flat-screen TVs, rocking Playstation-type joysticks back and forth.
But they're not fighting for survival in a criminal underworld or dodging punches in a martial arts tournament.
Instead, they're soaring over the Potomac River, the National Mall, Capitol Hill and every other part of the city and its surrounding areas, monitoring a virtual landscape shaped by real-time traffic, weather, emergency management and other critical data.
"It's a four-dimensional view of the Washington, D.C., area," said Michael Pack, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology (CATT). "It's almost like a virtual world that you can fly around in. When you drop down to a road ... you can actually see what the traffic looks like if you were on the road."
Pack and his colleagues at CATT have worked for several years to integrate all of the data that help transportation officials keep the roads safe and clear.
Accident reports, planned roadway closures, construction updates and other information are gathered by emergency management and transportation officials, but that data rarely moves across bureaucratic and state lines in real time.
If an accident takes place in Virginia, it used to be that emergency management officials in nearby Maryland or Washington, D.C., wouldn't know about it until someone in Virginia gave them a call or sent an e-mail. But even a five or 10-minute lag, Pack said, could mean delays for thousands of motorists who could have been re-routed.
CATT's newest technology not only lets transportation and safety officials at local, state and federal levels instantly share key information, it allows them to interact with the data as they would in a video game.
On Friday -- just in time for an influx of more than 2 million inauguration visitors -- the center delivered the software to FEMA and homeland security officers who will pilot the technology today.
Applications Beyond Entertainment
"[Video games] have always been at the forefront of technology," Phillip Weisberg, CATT's 3D development manager, told ABCNews.com.
Weisberg, an avid gamer, was a junior at the University of Maryland when he started working with CATT more than four years ago. He had zero experience in civil engineering, but was convinced that the design technology that powered his favorite puzzle and arcade games had broader applications.
"Grand Theft Auto is a completely immersive world where, no matter where you go, there's always something to do or something to see," Weisberg said, emphasizing that an effective transportation management program would need to be similarly data-rich.
By analyzing the data structures and algorithms underlying popular video games and then testing controlling techniques, Weisberg and his colleagues assembled a 4-D real-time data visualization system easy enough for gamers and non-gamers to quickly master.
The technology is currently limited to government officials but the center hopes to one day distribute a modified version (without sensitive information) to the general population.
Traveling in a 'Virtual Helicopter'
"It takes the idea of video games but puts it in a practical light where you're actually using this as a situational awareness tool," Weisberg said.
With a joystick in hand, users can fly over a region as though in a "virtual helicopter" to survey animated cars and trucks traveling highways and city streets below.
Aerial and satellite imagery, like those used in Google Earth, provide the backdrop, and the system also pulls in images captured from closed-circuit television for closer-to-the-street views.
Sensors embedded in the pavement, called "pucks," track the number of cars that go by, the speed at which they travel, the temperature of the roadway and the salinity of the moisture.
Monitoring Traffic and Transportation Problems
All of that data feeds into the system, along with reports from the National Weather Service, and affects the animation accordingly. As traffic issues arise, color-coded beacons and diamond-shaped messages appear on the screen.
You could be monitoring a stream of cars steadily travelling along Constitution Avenue until a message pops up indicating an accident, signal problem or road block.
Or, as you watch the sun set in real-time, you could see a red beacon in the distance indicating a situation to explore. If you see an increase in snow and ice as you approach, you could infer that slick roads lead to a jam or accident and then dispatch salt trucks to the area.
"It's just all of this info getting shared helps to give all the decision-makers information about where to re-route people, where to position officers, where to focus their efforts," Pack told ABCNews.com. "[It] helps people controlling traffic by helping them making better decisions as problems come up."