Google Earth is a digital cartography tool that is free to use for anyone with internet access. While paid versions exist, the free version is amazing and offers up more than just a three-dimensional map of our planet. Not only can you explore about 95% of the mapped earth but you can also explore the stars, neighboring heavenly bodies, and play with a sophisticated flight simulator. You can also time travel by setting back the date or even check the crime statistics of an area you wish to explore. It is also used to help conservationists by tracking the changes of our environment over time. For some people, it is a tool that changed their lives personally in a dramatic and unpredictable way.
In the mid 1990’s a computer graphics company, SGI, were attempting to revolutionize 3D graphics for the purposes of flight simulation. They came up with “clip mapping” and it revolutionized the graphics world. It blew the minds of video game graphics developers because of its fluidity. Engineers from SGI formed another company, Intrinsic, that would utilize their tech for PC’s and video games. Under this company, a clip mapping feature was developed that allowed users to “fly” over a 3D visualization of Earth. Because of this, a company was formed from members of Intrinsic, called Keyhole, after the software developers realized a different potential from their evolving tech. It was Keyhole’s product, EarthViewer 1.0, that later became the foundation for Google Earth.
The product was marketed to the travel and real estate industry as well as a tool for planning construction for civil engineers. Even News agencies used it to fly over Iraqi landscapes during the Iraq War. Eventually, the future goals of the company became impossible with the resources they had. A company came a long that had such resources to actualize Keyhole’s dream. In 2004, Google purchased Keyhole for an undisclosed amount and began the Google Earth project.
Billions of top-quality images are taken of the earth through satellite and aerial photography. These images are then weaved together to construct a clear view of any part of the earth. 3D renders the earth are made similarly. Photos of the same place but taken and different angles by planes that are flown over the location in a tight pattern. The information is fed to an algorithm that constructs the landscape and allows for interactive 3D viewing. First time users of Google Earth are always shown the same version of earth. Every part of the planet is presented during their spring season, when everything is in bloom. It is called “Pretty Earth”.
Visiting Your Neighborhood
First time users, 99% of the time, use GE to visit their neighborhood. When visiting, it is possible to see a time-lapse of all the changes of the neighborhood spanning as far back as 30 years.
GE has a unique method of exploring the planet. If you start in your neighborhood and want to next check out the Eiffel Tower in France, you do not simply teleport there. The program allows you to fly over and witness the terrain between your location and the destination. There is even an option to do this with driving directions so you can fly through your journey before you drive it.
This is the latest addition to GE. GE allows you to simulate flying actual planes over the GE map. Choose from either an F-16 fighter jet or the SR22 propeller plane and pick an initial airport. The simulator is joystick enabled but also capable with a keyboard and mouse. This is a simple version of the full feature flight simulators in existence, but it is fun and a look into what GE could be.
Google in partner with NASA allows you to explore the stars that surround our planet. If you switch to sky mode and fly around the stars just like you do on the three-dimensional digital map of Earth.
Google Sky also provides two tours of outer space. Take a trip through some well-known galaxies under the program User’s Guide to the Galaxy. The other tour gives you an intimate look at the life cycle of a star called, Life of A Star.
A GE feature, Earth Engine, is a tool conservationist use to see how geographic features change as the temperature rises. It also helps visualize any changes happening on the environment and takes part in actively stopping these changes. Notably, a conservation group noticed over-fishing patterns in Indonesia. After alarming the Indonesian government about this abuse, policy and enforcement were implemented to protect the fragile coast.
GE Voyager feature allows for geotagged information which can give cultural context to locations. So many locations in GE will now have stories, annotations, and videos that educate you on the geographic and cultural context of said location. You can even add your own personal history to areas you have been to. "Sesame Street”, “Carmen Sandiego”, and National Geographic have partnered with GE to help educate young people. Together they have developed tours by kid friendly characters as well as interactive games for a fun way to explore and learn about our planet.
Many people get concerned when they hear anyone can check out where you live at anytime from anywhere. It may put them at ease to know that the imagery for GE is from past images up to 3 years old. That means there is no real-time viewing of any location. Though officials from numerous countries are concerned this is still a risk to national security, especially concerning military bases. However, GE only packages data uniquely from satellite images which is already available elsewhere.
In 2005, just after GE’s launch, Hurricane Katrina hit the United States and put New Orleans underwater. GE made it possible to locate survivors when street signs became submerged. Trackers were put on elephants and their movements were tracked in real-time through GE. This information helped combat the poachers killing elephants for their ivory tusks. A child separated from his family at age five used GE’s satellite imagery to trace his way back to them. He reunited with his biological mother after 25 years.
If you haven’t explored all that GE has to offer perhaps you are now convinced to use this technology that is right at your fingertips. Where do you see GE heading in the future? What else could it possibly be used for?