News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Review: Google Earth


Google appears to be unstoppable. Their recent projects have involved turning static web pages into interactive presentations, each one more useful than the last. Often called “web services” these new features are taking the World Wide Web into a welcome direction. Google unveiled today their next step, a program called “Google Earth“.

The Earth in Your Computer

If you happen to remember Keyhole, Google Earth will be familiar. In fact, last year Google purchased the maker of Keyhole. Google Earth merges Google Maps with Keyhole’s 3-D globe of the Earth. You can zoom into any location on the planet with greater and greater detail. The satellite images that overlay the 3-D globe have been obtained over the past three years. When I zoom in on my residence in Tucson, Arizona, I can pinpoint nearby streets and the nearby parking garage, but the apartment complex itself is not there. The image was taken before the building was erected. Still, the detail that is available is incredible. Car size objects are identifiable in many regions of Google Earth.

Keyhole offered similar capabilities, but Google Earth adds welcome new features, including an overlay of their own Google Maps, allowing you to find destinations of interest and driving directions to get there. What to order a pizza? Throw out your phone book. In Google Earth, type in “pizza” and the town in which you live and you are just seconds away from a bird’s eye view of ten pizza locations near you. Driving directions are just another click away.

Word descriptions of driving directions are augmented by a map and image of the path you need to travel. If you need even more assistance, press the play button and you will watch a flythrough of your path, in 3-D perspective. This is great help in visualizing where you are heading; in other words, try it before you drive it.

There is a wealth of other features awaiting your discovery. For example, I discovered I could explore 3-D representations of the mountains surrounding Tucson. The visible shrubbery appears to be from satellite imagery as well. I can image great educational opportunities for young and old alike. You can also take a look at 3-D representations of the skyscrapers in some cities, read summary descriptions about interesting locations, and overlay layers of information specific to your interests.

There are a few flaws in the program (I need to explore the program further to determine if these are actual flaws or just me not knowing exactly how to proceed.) One example is the driving direction flythrough. If you stop the flythrough before your destination, Google Earth will jump back to the beginning of your trip when you press play again. There does not appears to be a way to resume the flythrough from where you left off. The flythrough can be a little nauseating, too, especially if there are a lot of turns. Also, the speed of the flythrough can be faster than the program is able to load images. Fortunately, you can change the speed in the program’s options.

You will need a fast computer, a good graphics card, and a broadband Internet connection to use Google Earth. Now that more people use broadband than dial-up services, it appears the interactive World Wide Web is here to stay. Google Earth is free, but there are two versions for sale that offer even higher resolution surface images and additional features. A commercial version runs $400 a year but appears to be packed with features that may be well worth the price.

Future Speculation

As technology improves, broadband connections increase in speed, and graphics cards yield more and more reality-like graphic, it is not hard to image future version of Google Earth. The next step will be higher resolution images that are more regularly updated, enhanced 3-D effects, and new layers of detail that include current weather and other global metrics. Soon after that will come a version with high resolution video overlaying the 3-D globe. This could become a useful tool for keeping tabs on current traffic before you leave for work, tracking animal migration patterns, or pretending you live in a foreign city.

Beyond that, we get into the science fiction imaginings of Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash. If you haven’t read the book yet, consider it a must read. Pay attention to the “Metaverse” and imagine what Google Earth could become in just a few years.

Personally, I am looking forward to Google Mars and Google Titan.

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