FRANKLIN — On a balmy winter evening in 2006, as brothers Marc and Matt Lalley were staring at the sky, an idea came to them: What if students could learn about the Earth, its history and climate, from an astronaut's point of view, in real-time?
Eight years later, their startup company, iGlobe Inc., has found success with their idea. The company, which operates from an office space in downtown Franklin, has sold many of its electronic teaching globes, and is now building up an inventory to sell more.
"It's been increasing each year, but we're to the point where we don't have to build a new one each time we do a demonstration," said William S. Horn, the company's chief strategy officer and board member, and one of three employees, working with the Lalleys.
The brothers, who are from the Nashua area, initially researched their idea and found that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had made such a product, its "Science on a Sphere," which they say costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to operate.
"Science on a Sphere is awesome," Matt Lalley said. "There is no doubt about it, and we love the content, too. But between the price tag and the dedicated space requirement, we thought there might be an opening for a product with the same functionality on a slightly smaller scale."
After a few years of research and development, they introduced the HyperGlobe. Ranging in size from 18 to 48 inches, it is made of acrylic with a special coating on the inside and outside; it is portable and priced under $50,000.
The globes use programs and graphics from an iPad to display, on the face of the globe, scientific lessons such as the progression of climate change, and historical lessons like the spread of the Roman Empire.
"And we're working into programs that display how Facebook users connect on the globe," Horn said. "We're starting to add social sciences."
The brothers, who are hobbyists but have no formal technical training, came up with a smaller model that projects an image of the Earth through a special lens from an iMac a few feet in diameter as its globe.
It's for a few students to use at once, and it costs under $10,000.
They also made an inflatable 15-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide version that is priced around $15,000, Horn said.
Each of the larger globes has technology inside that allows the wireless projections to occur. The smaller globe produces an image of the globe similar to a hologram.
"The software that they've come up with is the real difference-maker," Horn said. "The programs are controlled by an iMac or an iPad, and it's extremely intuitive. The kids get a hold of it, and they just take off. They love it."
So far, the company has sold its products to an aquarium in Australia, museums in Alaska and a university in Texas.
They also sold one to the Tilton School, a private college-prep school just up the road in a neighboring town.
Recently, the company partnered with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to educate students and the general public on the climate.
Last month, MIT submitted a proposal for a grant from the National Science Foundation as part of the Small Business Technology Transfer program.
Professor Glenn Flierl, who leads the MIT research efforts on the project, said the iGlobe is extremely useful.
"As climate change becomes one of the critical issues in the 21st century, an educated and informed populace is critical.
Yet our methods for teaching climate processes and the physics, chemistry, and biology of climate change remain constrained by 20th century technology," Flierl said.
"We at MIT feel that by working with iGlobe to integrate a spherical globe with a flat panel display provides an immediate, intuitive way of presenting spatial information accurately while also showing details, time histories and latitude-depth sections. The ability to explore the information, to ask questions and seek information which helps answer the questions makes this proposed project a powerful tool for learning."