The font, named as Aerial Bold, is literally about "reading" the earth for letterforms, or alphabet shapes, "written" into the topology of buildings, roads, rivers, trees, and lakes. To do this, the duo are traversing the entire planet's worth of satellite imagery and developing tools and methods necessary to map these features hiding in plain sight.
Benedikt Gross and Joey Lee met at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, and decided to collaborate on a different project. However, en route, they spent so much time looking at satellite images that they started spotting alphabetical shapes in them. Gross says, “As is often the case with noticing an oddity for the first time, once we saw a few letters, suddenly there were letters all over the place.”
“This is an ambitious project that will require experimentation and a large amount of data wrangling. While we are dedicated to deriving earth’s letterforms by developing the best possible methods using computer vision, there will most certainly be some cases in which more manual labour will be employed. This will be especially true for regions of the world where imagery and data are of lower resolution and less available and when validating each letterform (e.g. is what the computer thinks is an alphabet shape indeed an alphabet shape?),” Lee says.
As a result, through brute-force approach (manually finding letters), the duo have already compiled a complete alphabet dataset. “In many cases have found multiples of each letter,” shares Gross.
There are, however, some legal hurdles too. Deriving data from satellite imagery is and can be a tricky thing from a legal point of view. All of the companies that provide aerial imagery online (e.g. Google, etc) have specific terms and conditions, which almost always forbid any data mining of the imagery. For some aerial imagery providers, however, there are provisions that allow you to derive data from their imagery (e.g. if the data is contributed to OSM, openstreetmap.org).
“These are indeed important considerations, but we’re optimistic and have already planned out ways forward, Lee says. “First, we approach one of the aerial imagery providers and they simply allow us to use the data for this project. If we have no luck in accessing pre-made global imagery tile-set, we can start with the parts of the world where imagery is available at high resolutions under public domain (e.g. in the United States) and continue from there.”
“Regardless of the imagery source, we will combine the imagery data with OSM data which includes quite a comprehensive global database of vector buildings, roads, trees, lakes, rivers, etc. Together, these will serve as the basis of our alphabet shapes,” concludes Gross.
The project has already has 569 backers on Kickstarter.com who have already pledged $11,492.