Walt Mossberg

Google Earth Thrills With Photos, Stunts, But How Practical Is It?

It’s good to have a healthy skepticism about the claims of the hype-driven technology industry. But there are times when even a hardened skeptic has to admit to amazement and delight at the sheer coolness of some of the things you can do on a personal computer today. And one of those “wow” moments happens the first time you run a new program called Google Earth.

The program lets you view satellite and aerial photos of pretty much any spot on the planet. In big metropolitan areas in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe, you can locate, and zoom in on, individual buildings and houses, and see cars and trees. You can overlay streets onto these urban images, as well as markers indicating restaurants, hotels and more. In other places, you can make out only towns and large geographical features, like lakes.

The program rapidly fetches the images from the Internet and visually “flies” you from place to place around the globe. The process is so fluid it feels like a Hollywood stunt. For instance, if you’re staring at a bird’s-eye view of St. Mark’s Square in Venice and you type in your address in Boston, Google Earth will zoom out till you seem high in the sky, then rapidly “fly” you west across the Atlantic into the U.S., and then stop right over your house.

Google first released the program last week at earth.google.com. But demand was so high that the company’s servers were overwhelmed, so Google is intermittently turning off downloads. You may have to visit the site several times to download the software.

When you first try Google Earth, you’ll want to type in all the places you frequent and see how they look from the air. You’re also likely to call in family and friends to see how cool the program is, which is exactly what I did. I located my house, my office, my old college dorm and the house where I was raised. I wowed visitors by typing their addresses into the program and “flying” them to aerial views of their houses.

It’s an amazing demo and a great example of how much power computers and the Internet have put into the hands of average people. The trouble is, I’m not sure how practical Google Earth is for most people. In many cases, it’s better to look at a map of an area rather than a photo of rooftops. Driving directions can be clearer when superimposed on a map, rather than on a giant photographic landscape where specific features, like signs, can’t be seen in detail.

Google Earth, which runs only on Windows PCs with 3D-capable video cards, isn’t the first software of its kind. Satellite photos have been available online for years, and Google Earth is based on a product called Keyhole that the big search company purchased last year. Microsoft, which has been in this field for a long time, is working on a similar product called Virtual Earth, which is due out later this summer.

But Google Earth is the first free satellite-photo product I’ve seen that makes navigating the globe really easy, and that integrates local databases of businesses and other important sites so you can quickly locate them right on the aerial images. You can search for dry cleaners in Cleveland and quickly see a satellite map of that city with the dry cleaners marked on it.

When you play with Google Earth, you notice some odd things. For instance, the details of the White House roof have been blanked out, presumably to obscure security features and vulnerabilities. And all but the outline of the U.S. Capitol is deliberately obscured. But the Pentagon and CIA headquarters are shown crystal clear, in considerable detail.

Confusingly, Google offers another satellite map service besides Google Earth. The company’s Google Maps service, which runs in a Web browser instead of the special Google Earth software, uses the same maps as Google Earth, and it can alternately display a map or aerial photo of a location, something Google Earth can’t do. But Google Earth offers many features Google Maps lacks, and it allows you to zoom in much more on the photos than Google Maps does.

With Google Earth, you can add your own place markers, with custom icons, to the aerial photos. You can save lists of places and return to any of them with a couple of mouse clicks. The program also allows you to save, print or email snapshots of the aerial images you find.

One very cool feature allows you to get driving directions and see your route outlined on photos of the actual roads. You can then click on a VCR-like “play” icon to take a virtual drive along the route.

A big limitation of Google Earth and other similar programs is that they show only rooftops, which tell you little, not the fronts and sides of buildings. Google Earth tries to compensate by adding featureless 3D-drawn images of buildings in some big cities, but the effect isn’t great.

Microsoft plans to leap ahead on this issue. Its Virtual Earth product will include real photos of the fronts and sides of buildings, taken using planes equipped with multiple cameras that capture a 45-degree view. Google says it is working on the same thing, but it has announced no release date.

You may not use Google Earth every day, but it’s worth fooling around with just because it’s cool.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com


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