Google Earth Grows a New Crop of 3-D Buildings, and Other Web Morsels to Savor

4/18/08Follow @wroush

One of my goals with this column—which is now in its third week—is to tell you about new stuff on the Web that’s so delicious you just have to taste it. Here are three morsels to tide you over until next time.

The first is a quick appetizer: Very Short List, an e-mail newsletter funded by IAC/Interactive Corp. VSL has been around since mid-2006, but I just discovered a couple of weeks ago. If you sign up, every day they’ll send you one—exactly one—nugget of entertainment or media content that, in the site’s words, hasn’t already been hyped to within an inch of its life. So far, every item I’ve received has been intriguing at least (an amazing TV ad for a soccer video game), and often utterly engrossing (an online museum of online museums).

For the main course: I suggest Google Earth 4.3. This week Google rolled out the latest version of its free geographic browser for Windows and Mac, which lets you tour a 3-D simulation of the entire planet built on the company’s database of real satellite and aerial photographs.

Like its competitors, Microsoft Virtual Earth and NASA’s Worldwind, Google Earth started out as a digital atlas, showing huge amounts of classical map and photographic data that was itself 2-D but happened to be draped over a spherical globe, which mainly made it easier to shift between top-down views of different locations. As the product has evolved, however, the sphere forming the scaffolding for the map data has gained realistic 3-D topography, followed by other real-world touches such as 3-D buildings and even clouds based on real-time reports from the National Weather Service. In other words, it’s gradually becoming what Yale computer scientist David Gelernter first termed a “mirror world”—a software model that tries to recreate the human environment as accurately as possible.

The latest version provides improvements in both content and navigation that nudge it even farther in this direction—which is a blessing for people like me who are intrigued by virtual worlds and all the possibilities they offer for new kinds of learning and interaction (though it should be noted that some traditional map mavens like Stefan Geens, the author of the Ogle Earth blog, feel that the profusion of cosmetic improvements in Google Earth is diminishing its information value as an atlas).

River Court Rooftop — The Real PhotoThe most visible addition to Google Earth 4.3 is an expanded crop of 3-D buildings for dozens of cities around the world, along with extremely realistic textures or “skins” for those buildings. In past versions of Google Earth, most 3-D buildings were represented by gray boxes of the appropriate shape and height. In 4.3, most of the 3-D models, including hundreds of Boston buildings, are now clothed with photographs of the actual structures. (Don’t ask me how Google pulled this off: The process of creating photorealistic 3-D models of buildings was, until recently, a tedious one tackled mainly by enthusiastic amateurs, who used Google’s SketchUp 3-D modeling program and uploaded their finished models to Google’s open-source 3-D Warehouse. Clearly Google has found a way to automate the whole process.)

River Court Rooftop — The Google Earth VersionThe program’s 3-D buildings are now so detailed that it’s possible to “fly” to a given location in the Google Earth landscape and get a view that’s astonishingly close to actually being there. To see what I mean, compare the two images here: one is a photograph I took yesterday from the roof of the building in Cambridge, MA, where Xconomy is headquartered. The other is a screenshot from Google Earth with the imaginary “camera” positioned in roughly the same spot.

When comparing these two images, keep in mind what makes the Google Earth version so remarkable: It’s entirely synthetic. No one from Google went out and took a picture from that perspective (although Google’s vast collection of Street View photographs is now integrated into Google Earth—but that’s a different story). Rather, it’s a reconstructed view based entirely on 3-D modeling, pasted-on photographic skins, Google’s map data, and some very sophisticated computer graphics algorithms.

Google Earth 4.3 contains a ton of other great improvements, but I’ll just mention two more. One is the sun. Now you can turn on a feature that puts a simulated sun into the proper spot in the simulated sky and lets you adjust the time of day with a slider, generating realistic shadows on buildings and landforms. Finally, the Google Earth team has completely revamped the program’s navigation controls to make panning, zooming, tilting, and otherwise moving around inside the 3-D environment much more intuitive—which is to say, much more like a videogame or a Second Life-style virtual world. If you’re a longtime user of Google Earth, the new controls might take some getting used to, but ultimately you’ll appreciate the added flexibility. Meanwhile, if you’ve never downloaded Google Earth before, there’s never been a better time to start exploring.

Browsing the Gutenberg Bible using MyLOC’s Silverlight InterfaceAnd now for dessert: Go check out MyLOC, the newest online resource from the Library of Congress. Launched April 12, the site is a history buff’s dream, containing a digital collection of historic books, maps, and other resources from the Library’s vast archives. The site—the online counterpart of an exhibit at the Library’s Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C.—provides some clever Flash and Microsoft Silverlight multimedia tools for browsing individual books, including a Gutenberg Bible and several volumes from Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. Bon appetit.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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