While Santa Circles the Globe, GPUs Show How Bright Rudolph’s Nose Glows

by Samantha Zee

If you look into the sky on Christmas Eve, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus on his reindeer-pulled sleigh, you won’t be the only one.

Each Dec. 24, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) hones in on Santa via “NORAD Tracks Santa,” or noradsanta.org, as the jolly old soul navigates his way around the globe dispensing presents.

NORADLOGOFor almost 60 years, NORAD and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), have tracked Santa’s flight. The tradition dates to 1955, when an advertisement misprinted the telephone number for children to call Santa.

Instead of Saint Nick, the number connected children to the CONAD commander-in-chief’s operations hotline. When the phone started ringing, Colonel Harry Shoup, director of operations at the time, had his staff check the radar for any signs of Santa navigating his way south from the North Pole. Updates on Santa’s location were given to any children who called.

Every year the tradition continued, with military staffers answering phone calls from small children. With the advent of the digital age, you can log on to Facebook, along with almost 1.5 million other followers, to keep an eye on Santa’s progress. Or check @NoradSanta’s comments on Twitter.

NORAD’s Santa tracking team has its own behind-the-scenes elves keeping everything running smoothly.

Among them is Scott Hunter, who leads a development team at Analytical Graphics Inc. of Exton, Pa., which develops analysis and visualization software for the aerospace, intelligence and defense industries.

“The Santa-tracking business has been going on for years, but we now make it a full 3D interactive experience,” Hunter said. And that’s quite an experience for the estimated 20 million people who will look at the NORAD site on Dec. 24.

Viewers will be able to zoom in to see how red Rudolph’s nose is up close, while a 3D model of Santa and his reindeer gallop at breakneck pace around the globe over frothy oceans and snow-capped mountains and down the wide avenues of big cities.

Site visitors won’t need any special plug-ins to see Santa, Hunter said. NORAD tracks Santa using Cesium, an open-source WebGL globe and map engine shepherded by Analytical Graphics. WebGL taps into GPUs to render images in a web page. This allows NORAD to show maps with eye-catching realism, aided by support in the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome.

“You’ll get the best experience on a GPU because it’s higher quality,’’ Hunter said. This year, WebGL is also widely supported on iOS devices, so you can track Santa on your phone or tablet.

NORAD “wants to be as world-friendly as possible,” Hunter said. “And they have a huge audience.”

And what would Hunter like from Santa this year? All he wants for Christmas is for the site to stay online throughout Dec. 24, or at least until the last visitor goes to sleep.