Tracking Santa, With a Little Help from that Brand New GPU

by Brian Caulfield

Got an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti under the tree? Unwrap that present early.

Every Christmas Eve, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) reports on the whereabouts of Santa Claus on “NORAD Tracks Santa,” or

NORAD began tracking Santa in 1955, when a newspaper ad misprinted a call-in number for Santa. Instead of Santa, callers got the crew commander on duty at the Continental Air Defense Command Air Operations Center – the predecessor to NORAD – in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The crew commander went with it, telling his staff to give callers Santa’s official location.

Tracking Santa Goes Viral
NORAD Tracks Santa Since then, NORAD’s efforts have evolved for a connected era. NORAD’s Santa tracking team now has 1.3 million Facebook followers, and — with a little help from a development team led by Scott Hunter at Analytical Graphics, a 250-strong company that develops analysis and visualization software for the aerospace, intelligence and defense community — a site able to report Santa’s location in real time to tens of millions of visitors every Christmas Eve.

While Analytical Graphics — which started working on the Santa Tracker since 1997 — can’t say much about most of the work it does for NORAD, what Santa watchers will be seeing from NORAD this year is anything but classified.

In addition to sparkling waters and terrain rendered in astonishing detail, this year’s map will include a 3D model of Santa and reindeer complete with moving legs, bobbing heads and swaying antlers as Santa zooms around the globe at supersonic speeds.

No Special Software Needed
You won’t need any special software to see this show. NORAD relies on Cesium, an open-source WebGL globe and map engine started by Analytical Graphics. WebGL taps into GPUs to render scenes, and is now supported in the latest version of Internet Explorer.

So all three major browsers can now render NORADs maps. No special plugin required. The 3D Santa and reindeer model is delivered to the browser using glTF, an emerging effort from the Khronos Group for an open-standard 3D model transmission format.

You won’t need dual GeForce GTX 780 GPUs, either. Even an aging GeForce 8800 GT will allow users to watch Santa’s progress on a 1280 by 1084 display at 55 frames per second. But you will need a decent GPU to see all that NORAD’s amazing tracker has to offer.

“It’s completely fair to say that for the best experience you need a decent machine,” says Analytical Graphics Principal Graphics ArchitectPatrick Cozzi.. “Really low-end machines will fall back to a 2D map.” Talk about a lump of coal.