TechnoFiles...by Riley Gay
Eye in the sky: now Google is flying high

By Riley Gay

If you’ve ever used Mapquest (www.mapquest.com) to map an address or get directions to your destination, then you know how handy it can be. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could actually see the place you’re looking for?

Well, now you can.

Web search heavyweight Google has released an early version of a search program that uses satellite imagery to locate just about anyplace on Earth you might be looking to find, giving you a bird’s-eye view of your search target.

It’s kind of like having your very own spy satellite, except that the views are not in real time, but images taken sometime in the past three years. Other than that, you’re pretty much seeing what a reconnaissance specialist sees.

Google Earth began as a project at Keyhole Corp., a company purchased by Google last year. The Keyhole project stitched together available satellite and aerial photos to create a “virtual globe” that can be streamed over a broadband connection to a suitably equipped Windows PC, and navigated using the computer’s mouse and keyboard.

A user can “fly” to their destination either by inputting a location or clicking on the globe, and can zoom in close enough to see landmarks, buildings, houses, even cars. In some cases, notably the Grand Canyon and some larger cities such as San Francisco, the view can be tilted and turned to display a 3-D perspective that is nothing short of amazing.

If you’re planning a short trip or a long vacation, Google Earth will map your route and let you make the journey, in the virtual world, on your computer monitor. You’ll travel the route from a vantage point above street level, and you can stop along the way to check out any side trips you may be considering.

One of Google Earth’s more useful features is the ability to place overlays, or “layers”, on top of your view that display street and highway names, restaurants, hotels, airports, as well as many other features. You can choose to show any number of layers, or none at all, as your search needs dictate.

You can also access Google Maps (maps.google.com) from within the program to view your search results as a standard graphical map, or combine the two in a hybrid view. The results of all searches, including destination and driving directions, can be saved for later review or to share with others, and locations can be saved as “placemarks”, allowing you to soar from one to another across the country or around the world.

One caveat: You’ll need a broadband connection and a computer with a 3-D capable graphics card to get the most out of the program, and it may not even run on an older PC. Google Earth requires Windows 2000 or XP to operate.

Keep in mind, too, that Google Earth is presented as a beta release, meaning that there are likely to be a few rough edges. Still, it’s worth a look if only for the very high “cool” quotient.

Go to earth.google.com to find out more about Google Earth and to download the program for free. For $20 a year you can download a version that includes better resolution images, drawing tools and support for GPS data input.

While you may not have the wherewithal to launch your own fleet of surveillance satellites, with Google Earth you might just have the next best thing.