Image processing software developed by ITaP staff engineer still used widely 30 years later

MultiSpec creator Larry Biehl demonstrates the software Larry Biehl

Software developed by an ITaP engineer has put geospatial data analysis in the hands of researchers and students for a generation now.

MultiSpec was developed in 1988 by ITaP’s Larry Biehl, who was then at the Laboratory of Applications in Remote Sensing (LARS), one of the first labs in the country funded by NASA to do digital processing of aerial and later satellite multispectral images. At the time, Biehl and his colleagues used LARSYS, LARS developed software that ran on IBM mainframe computers.

When the introduction of the Macintosh personal computer in the mid-1980s made computers more accessible to everyone, David Landgrebe, who was then a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a former director of LARS, wanted to develop a Macintosh version of LARSYS for his students to use. MultiSpec resulted from that project.

In the 1990s, MultiSpec reached a much larger audience as part of then-Vice President Al Gore’s initiative, the GLOBE program, to bring geospatial data analysis into the K-12 classroom. Since it was free and user-friendly, MultiSpec was perfectly suited for educational use, and allowed students to study how land around their communities was being used. NASA even provided funding for Biehl to develop a version of the software for the Microsoft Windows operating system.

ITaP Research Computing staff members continue to use MultiSpec to teach participants in Purdue summer camps about geospatial data analysis. As part of the Geospatial Analysis Building Blocks (GABBs) project, led by ITaP senior research scientist Carol Song, an online version of MultiSpec was embedded on the science gateway MyGeoHub and made available to researchers and educators across the globe for free.

Today, there are several thousand registered users of MultiSpec, who are using the software for scientific research, outreach and classroom education at all levels.  

“I really think Larry should have credit for that,” says Landgrebe, now an emeritus professor, of why MultiSpec has remained so popular, 30 years after it was first developed. “He produced a software package that was easy for others to use.”

Although MultiSpec may seem ancient by software standards, it’s not headed for retirement yet. Biehl is working on transforming it from freeware to fully open source, so that users can edit the code to extend or modify it for their own needs.  

Writer: Adrienne Miller, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), 765-496-8204,

Last updated: April 5, 2019