Discovering the Living Earth with Google Earth

I am rarely amazed. But Google Earth is truly amazing. It astounds me.

Google Earth is a program that you install on your PC. It gives you an incredibly easy way to zoom in on any part of the planet. It is amazing how quickly and easily you can go from outer space to zooming in on someone’s backyard. It is incredible how quickly you can focus on an address of interest. It is simplicity in itself to zoom out or pull back (use that middle mouse roller). Once you have marked a spot on the earth, it is transparently easy to find it again; particularly when it shows up as a focus spot on the globe if it fits on the map.

Perhaps the product is named wrong. It should be called Google Magellan. Ferdinand de Magellan was the captain of the first ship to sail around the world. That was an amazing act. Now you too can sail around the world in a virtual airplane or spacecraft and never leave your chair. You can zip from point A to point B with incredible ease. Moreover, as you do so you see the earth move around you in three dimensions. It is the first product that truly lets you appreciate the breadth and scope of our planet.

Picture of my neighborhood using Google Earth

Of course, we have seen satellite and aerial photos on the web before. Google Map satellite photos are pretty darn easy to use: just drag in the direction you want, and zoom in on whatever is in the center of the map. Microsoft Terraserver has amazing detail for much of the United States. However, Google Earth goes way beyond even the recently introduced Google Satellite Maps. It seamlessly makes finding any defined point on the globe almost effortless. In addition, it provides convenient layers that show road names, local terrain, lodging, dining, buildings (in three dimensions in many cities) and borders.

It is an incredibly synergy of form, function and information. It is tethered to the whole massive Google infrastructure. To make it work you need high speed Internet. You also need a newer version of Microsoft Windows (Mac version under development) and a supported 3D graphics card. Still many of us have this already so there is nothing to buy. You also have to download and install the Google Earth program. Today this may be impossible. Even with its massive bandwidth and infrastructure, Google is having trouble keeping up with the demand. So as of today, you cannot download it. I got lucky. After reading an article about it in Sunday’s Washington Post, I downloaded it. Since then it has become almost an addiction.

How do I love Google Earth? I love the drag and drop interface. Once I have found my addresses of interest, I just drag them into the My Places area of the interface and they are remembered forever (including the height, perspective and layers I used when I last visited). I love the tilt feature. It gives me a forced perspective I never had before. For example, I live a few miles from Washington Dulles International Airport. Now I can soar above it and traverse the runways just like an airplane captain. It gives you detail you cannot get from Flight Simulator. Yes, I am very much like a bird in flight when I navigate with Google Earth. Unlike a bird, I do not have any altitude limitations. I can travel hundreds of miles a second. In addition, I love clicking on the roads layer and seeing the road names pop into place. I like the way the road names shrink or expand to fit the available space, or transparently go away if the type size would overwhelm or underwhelm the road. I like being able to rotate perspective on a dime. I like knowing precisely the latitude, longitude and height above the ground I am at during any given moment. I love the way when I go from point A to point B that it pulls back perspective and zooms me effortlessly and smoothly across the landscape, then zooms in to your new address. This is not just cool. This is not just way cool. This is ultra cool.

Google is partnered with Keyhole, which provides a lot of the digital imagery magic. Unfortunately, you cannot necessarily zoom into your backyard. The highly detailed imagery is not (yet) available for the whole country. But if you live in or around a major metropolitan area then the chances are that you will see your house, your driveway, your cars in the driveway, your trees, your bushes, even your fences. You can get a clue as to how detailed the imagery is in a particular area from the density of the grid. If it is more gray than green, for example, it is probably contains highly dense imagery. Certain states like Indiana and Massachusetts seem to have complete high-density images of their states.

If you wonder where the imagery comes from, it will tell you the source of the information near the bottom of every image. I was looking at Saigon last night and was a bit surprised to find that the imagery was provided courtesy of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an agency of our Department of Defense. I used to work there in the quaint days when it was called the Defense Mapping Agency. My newest employer, the U.S. Geological Survey provides a lot of the coarser imagery through its Landsat and EROS satellite images. If I have some impatience with the program, it is that I want high imagery photos for the entire planet. But it’s not there. Rest assured that if Google can get them then they will make them available.

Of course the first thing I did was examine from the air all those places where I used to live. But I’ve also had lots of other fun. I’ve looked at airports I’ve flown in and out of. It’s fun to locate them myself by zooming in on a city the navigating to it with my eye. I’ve found things with my eye that I did not think I could find. I found the hotel where I was at in both Montreal and Denver. I found a shortcut that gets me around traffic coming home from work.

While an excellent tool, it is not always perfect. It misplaced one of my residences by about a block. It put a gas station I frequent half a mile up the road. But at least 95% of the time it locates addresses or places correctly. Considering the volume of them out there that is very impressive.

When I was a youth and imagining the future, I figured that we’d have colonies on Mars by 2005. I could only dimly imagine personal computers, cell phones or even the Internet. But none of these things were as far out as Google Earth. I never expected a tool like this in my lifetime. This is Star Trek stuff. That it is available here and now and for free just blows my 48 year old mind.

If you are geography nut as I am then you will find that Google Earth is an addicting tool. Even if you are not you may find that with the easy use of Google Earth you will turn into one too. Moreover, perhaps like me you will get an appreciation for the breadth and depth of our planet. Yes, it is finite, but it fits together in both micro and macro like trillions of tiny puzzle pieces. With Google Earth, you may feel the earth come alive as a living entity for the first time. And for me that’s why it is truly amazing.

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