Episode 1 of The Billion Dollar Code begins with preparation for the court case that is set to encapsulate this four-episode series. The main crux of the drama here comes from the origins of Google Earth as we know it, with a bitter feud brewing between Art+Com and Google.
All of this began back in Berlin 1993 which is where the origins of this project began. One of our main protagonists is inventor and budding art enthusiast Carsten. He realizes that he needs an engineer, which he finds in the form of Juri Muller.
After being a lone wolf his whole life, Muller is the missing puzzle piece Carsten has needed. He’s also part of Chaos Computer Club, who are notorious for their hacking.
Juri manages to crack the code for Carsten, creating a project with no reloading or glitches. However, Carsten has bigger plans to create what we’ve colloquially come to recognize as Google Earth.
This comes in the form of sneaking into an office after-hours and showing off their tech on a flashy Onyx machine (which was used to create graphics for Terminator 2.)
Carsten pitches his idea to zoom all the way in and back out again with no reloading. As Carsten calls it, it’ll be the “modern-day Bible”. However, the hardware is not there yet, given they need this Onyx RealityEngine to run the algorithm. Juri deduces they need at least 10 years before it would be ready.
Reluctantly, the pair realize they need some investors and that comes in the form of Deutsche Telekom, the big telecommunications company in Germany. Juri scoffs at the idea, given he actually hacked them a year prior, but they pitch their idea to them nonetheless.
Despite promising technological innovation, the investors learn incredulously that the pair don’t have an idea on how to achieve the maps. Carsten knows this is a revolutionary tech and tells them they’ll regret passing this opportunity up.
This seems to work though, and it’s enough for Carsten to blag that he has a big team that can help work on this. He also tells them that they’re happy to commit. They even guarantee to have plans drawn up for a year’s time for a conference in Kyoto. And the name of this project? Terravision.
The trouble is, the false pretenses that this project was set up with stands out immediately, and it’s something the Google lawyers pounce on during our brief respites to the present.
Anyway, with a whole team in place, Carsten directs traffic. This rabble of artists and hackers combine to find as many maps and aerial schematics they can get their hands on. Of course, all of this is nothing if Juri can’t get his algorithm in place.
After months of begging and asking different countries for the maps, these hackers decide to grab the images direct from NASA by hacking in and taking then for themselves.
Everything goes swimmingly for the gang, up until New Years 1993. While everyone dances away and believes they’re on top of the world, Juri finds himself swamped. His algorithm still isn’t working and in fact, causes him to doubt his own abilities and the integrity of the project at large.
With Kyoto fast approaching, Juri eventually plucks up the courage to tell his partner what’s happening.
Now, given Telekom have pumped 1 million marks into the project, their investors had been shown nothing up until this point.
With everything a mess and Juri unsure he can finish the project in time for the conference, tensions are high as big question marks remain around the integrity of the project at large.
Juri ends up having a panic attack from the stress, but this actually winds up being the best thing for him. Carsten gives him some inspiration, realizing he knows where the “earthquake” in the coding stems from.
There’s a lot of chatter here about quadtrees and algorithms but the gist of it is that the coding needs to be “let free”, which Juri realizes he can fix through a Floating Coordinate System. With 5 hours until Telekom arrive, it’s nigh-on impossible to get it right in that time.
Well, they decide to pre-record a series of different locations, programmed in to the investors and their interests. In other words, they completely hoodwink them with a fake program until they can get the proper program in place. And in fact, even in Kyoto the program only just manages to come together with minutes to spare. Phew!
It only takes one mind to be blown by their presentation before everyone else gets involved, including the Secretary of Defense. This project, the Google Earth that we know today, was actually fully operational and functional as Terravision way back in 1994.
So how did Google manage to take this and brand it as their? Well, as Carsten himself informs, the young entrepreneurs made a grave mistake to allow this to happen.
The Episode Review
Billion Dollar Code kicks things off with a brilliant first episode, one that combines the intrigue and high stakes court case of The Social Network with an interesting real-world account of what happened with Google Earth.
Of course, these tech companies are no stranger to stealing ideas from others and in some cases will aggressively sue anyone who gets in their way or objects to their copyright infringement (oh, hello Disney.)
The condensed 4 episode structure works well to squeeze everything into this series without dragging out the story too, and the back and forth rapport between the past and present makes sense to keep things with a consistent structure.
This will undoubtedly be a case many people won’t be aware of and that in itself should be enough to entice people in to watch. Based on this first episode though, this is definitely worth checking out.