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Engineer Had a Better Idea: 'Video Map' All of L.A. County


Frank Yee spends his days driving up and down the streets of Los Angeles County in a customized van mounted with video cameras that record the passing scenery from 10 different angles.

Things get more interesting once he returns to his home office in Rolling Hills Estates. There, Yee digitizes the video for his various clients, stores it on a CD-ROM and indexes it block by block to a street map that can be used to pinpoint where the video was taken.

Yee calls this "video mapping," a high-tech service that blends elements of computers, video, multimedia, data storage, geographic information systems and old-fashioned sweat equity. In the last couple of years, Yee has logged more than 15,000 miles cruising neighborhoods from Palmdale to Lawndale.

With video mapping, Yee's completed CD-ROM is put on a standard Windows PC, where clicking the mouse on the desired block and angle will bring up the video as if the viewer were actually driving down the street in real time.

Yee's unique service has generated interest both in municipal government and private industry, including the film-location scouting business.

The Alameda Corridor Engineering Team is one of those using Yee's video mapping for estimate and design purposes.

Another customer is the city of Temecula in Riverside County, which last year hired Yee's firm, ACIM, to make an inventory of its traffic signs.

For that job, Yee video-mapped 120 miles of roadway and signage. The results are stored on 19 CD-ROMs.

"It was very important for us to physically see the signage and painting that was out in the field," explains Ali Moghadam, a senior engineer for Temecula. "Before, we had everything written down in hard copy, but things often got misfiled or weren't readily available. Now we can bring an entire area up on the screen from the office to see what needs to be done. It saves a lot of time."

Unlike many of the multimedia whiz kids out there hawking new technology, Yee is a sagacious 66-year-old who brings with him a lifetime of experience in computers.

He earned a bachelor's degree in science and engineering at UC Berkeley in 1954 and a master's in civil engineering at the University of Michigan in 1959. He received his first taste of mapping in the U.S. Army, where he did large-scale surveying in North Africa.

Later, he toiled for years in sales, marketing and development for such corporate behemoths as Xerox and IBM. He has also sold computers in China and Hong Kong, where he taught computer science at the polytechnic university. From 1988 to 1992, he sold computers for an artificial intelligence firm called Symbolics.

In 1992, he decided to strike out on his own, using his disparate knowledge to exploit what he saw as a gaping hole in the marketplace.

"All that I've done in computers has led to this," Yee explains. "I saw the emergence and convergence of all the technology in computers, software, video, storage, CD-ROM, multimedia and the costs going down, and I decided I wanted to put it all together."

What Yee didn't know, he picked up as he went along, schooling himself on the latest advances in geographic information systems and software that tied in mapping with data.

Industry experts say that with video mapping, Yee has tapped into the future of archiving.

"It's like virtual reality; it's the next step in geographic information systems," says Zaki Mustafa, a past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

Mustafa, a transportation engineer who heads up field operations for Los Angeles, says his department would save a lot of money in the long run by having a central video database from which to monitor conditions of curbs, signage and other traffic operations.

In fact, Los Angeles has already appropriated one small portion of Yee's video-mapping idea: It has installed stationary cameras at certain key intersections throughout the city to monitor traffic patterns.

As far as Mustafa knows, ACIM is unique and has no competitors. However, because of the technology's myriad applications, Yee expects that others will soon enter this emerging marketplace.

For now, Yee markets his services through industry conferences and computer shows and will often call on municipal officials to explain what he does. Many of his jobs are generated through word of mouth.

So far, most of Yee's clients have been municipalities and public agencies. But he envisions applications in real estate, law and especially the entertainment industry.

Location scouts say Yee's technology would make their jobs much easier.

"Most people don't know about it yet, but it provides more information faster and it's ultimately cheaper; I'm very interested in seeing that it be made available to the whole film industry," says Bob Johnston, a former location manager who worked on "Alien Resurrection" and is now a producer and production manager.

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