NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, June 2008
Google Releases Updated Version of “Google Earth”
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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http://earth.google.com/download-earth.html - FREE Version
http://earth.google.com/enterprise/earth_plus.html - $20 Plus Version
http://earth.google.com/enterprise/earth_pro.html - $400 Pro Version

It has been nearly two years since I first (and last) discussed Google Earth in this column. In the ensuing time since the last review, Google has been busy updating and improving the product, adding new features, and improving the graphics. For those who may not be aware, Google Earth is a program that allows the immense Google database of terrestrial and satellite images of the earth, along with amazing images of space, to be utilized and manipulated on the computer.

What is new and improved in the recently released Google Earth 4.3 (beta) is demonstrated in an interactive video tour online at earth.google.com/tour.html. One of the new features in version 4.3 include what Google calls “Photo-realistic Buildings”, where hundreds of buildings in many of the world’s major cities are shown in three dimensions (3D). If a building that is displayed “turns purple” when cursoring over it, clicking anywhere on the building will open up a smaller window giving details of the building, and the moniker of the person who created or updated the digital image. The images displayed can be manipulated to zoom in or around them from any angle, effectively creating a dynamic 360 degree panoramic view. These 3D views are not just of cities and buildings, but there are also spectacular images of natural beauties such as mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and canyons. Another new feature on this version is what Google calls “Swoop Navigation” where the user can virtually “Fly seamlessly through the landscape with new navigation controls. Swoop from outer space to street level and leap from one building top to another. Use the look joystick to view buildings as if you were standing right in front of them.”

Another aspect of the new version is the “Light and Shadow” feature where many of the images can be shown in selected or sequential times of the day, such as displaying a mountain top from sunrise to sunset. On the top of the screen is an optional slider which can be moved with the mouse to display the simulated or realistic image at any chosen time. In some of the more scenic images it appears to show the path of the sun across the sky with the corresponding light and shadows. The new and improved “Street View” that has been previously available online with Google Maps (maps.google.com) is now integrated into Google earth. Google has a fleet of vehicles which cruise major cities taking high resolution 360 degree digital photos as they drive down the streets. With “Street View” the user can virtually visit a city and virtually walk or drive the streets using the mouse instead of a vehicle. Views are literally from the street level showing cars, people, store fronts, intersections, and any other features visible from street level. Using the mouse, the user can cruise the streets just as if he was navigating the city for real. While not yet available for every city, a camera icon, when displayed on a map, will zoom in to a 360 degree panoramic image from street level. Many street level images contain additional camera icons which allow the user to travel seamlessly up a selected street, and the mouse can be used to turn in any direction.

The popular features that were in earlier versions of Google Earth have been retained. One that I periodically use is the “Directions” feature, which does not just give traditional driving directions and maps, but also animates the drive by clicking on the play button at the bottom of the driving directions listing. When animated, a detailed sequential zoomed-in satellite image is displayed, with the directions overlaid on the image. For example, when I requested driving directions from the Examiner offices on Willow Street in Beaumont, to the Bush Airport (IAH) in Houston, the seamless animation in Google Earth showed the street images including real pictures of the highway showing which lane to be in, detailed images of each turn or exit, and high resolution images of the airport. The images are actual photographs, not computer generated images. By seeing the route in exquisite detail prior to a journey may help ease the anxieties of the drive.

Once at a destination, it may be helpful to find nearby “points of interest”, such as restaurants. By simply entering the word “restaurants” in the “What?” box, and the current address in the “Where?” box, restaurants will be displayed on the Google map. By clicking on the icon displayed for each restaurant, details will be displayed for the selected restaurant in a window overlay. Typical information displayed included the name, address, phone, a hyperlink (if any) to the restaurant website, any reviews that may be available and driving directions “to” and “from” the restaurant.

Google Earth does not just provide maps and images of terrestrial and earthly locations, but also includes celestial maps and images. Clicking on the Saturn-looking icon on the top of the screen will open a “Search the Sky” search box. By entering a celestial body or location, such as “Mars”, Google Earth will display a sky map with an image of the heavenly body, and also display the current geometric coordinates for those using sophisticated telescopes.

The basic version of Google Earth 4.3 (beta) is a free download from earth.google.com. For those desiring more features, Google offers Google Earth Plus for $20, which adds support for a variety of GPS devices (verified support for Magellan and Garmin GPS devices, but can not upload to those devices), improved network performance, and improved high resolution printing.

For professional and commercial use Google offers the Pro version for $400. Google Earth is a fascinating utility, and will run on Windows 2000 or XP (Vista is not mentioned), and requires a minimum of 400MB hard drive space, and a video card capable of 1024x768 resolution with a 16bit color depth. An internet connection of at least 128Kb/sec is required. I suggest that readers of this column at least download the free version of Google Earth and simply play with it. Click on the icons at the top of the page, and check and uncheck some of the boxes on the left margin, and experiment with it; do not worry, you can not hurt anything by experimenting with it. Google Earth is one of my favorite “fun” programs.

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