Google Earth

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Description

When it first gained mainstream popularity when it was re-released back in 2005 as free software (it had previously been known as ‘Earthviewer’), Google Earth was an instant hit. Using satellite imagery and aerial photography garnered from the CIA funded ‘Keyhole Inc’ corporation, it completely revolutionised not only the way we plan our journeys, but the way in which we view our planet.

Features

To put it simply, it made the world seem ever so slightly smaller. If you have yet to experience Google Earth for yourself then it’s quite easy to explain. It’s essentially a global, virtual map that also offers users in depth geographical details as well as a satellite overlay that covers almost every civilised area on the planet. The software used by Google Earth is incredibly powerful, so much so that when it was first released, many users were actually rather intimidated by it. However as technology has moved on and people have become more accustomed to its uses, Google Earth has become a perpetual presence in our daily lives.
As the software has progressed, Google have implemented a raft of new features such as 3D images (created using data obtained from NASA) and the controversial ‘Street View’, which allows users to take virtual first person tours of the majority of major roads across the world. Google were able to map these streets using bespoke vehicles with incredibly powerful 360 degree cameras attached. The ‘Google Earth Car’ has become something of a vehicular icon in and of itself in recent years in fact.

When Google Earth first launched, its feature set was pretty sparse, but every new iteration brings with it a fresh set of bespoke features that you won’t find implemented with as much skill anywhere else. One of the most notable features of Google Earth is the ability to select your own overlays so that you can see your Earth the way you want to see it. For example 3D buildings, roads, county borders and even weather maps can be added and subtracted at the click of a box. The map can also be personalised with destination markers, routes and even your own photos.
Google Earth is an open source software program and is always expanding so anyone can potentially add to it (though all additions will be vetted before they are made official). There are also educational features such as the inbuilt flight simulator (so much more than just a silly little game) and the sky view button, which inverts the map so that users can scan the stars. Google have even included in recent updates the ability to peruse the Moon and even Mars! (though obviously these maps are not QUITE as in depth).

Comparison

Google Earth is essentially in a field of its own. There is not one solitary website or piece of free software that can possibly compare to its power and scope (and this is even before mentioning street view), but if you are genuinely curious about alternatives there are numerous (inferior) options. ‘Yahoo! Maps’ was launched back in 2007 and offers a similar service to Google Earth only with less global coverage. One thing Yahoo! Maps has over its Google counterpart is its traffic function, which allows users to check current traffic situations and plan their journey accordingly. Microsoft have also attempted their own crack at the whip with ‘Bing Maps’. Although Bing Maps offers 3D views of almost 70 cities worldwide, it’s coverage of less populated areas leaves a lot to be desired. The primary USP of Bing Maps is the ‘bird’s eye view’, which allows for aerial views from certain spots, but they are few and far between. The aptly names ‘Wikimapia’ is Wikipedia’s attempt at a Google Earth killer and its main selling point is that like its sister site, all content is completely user generated.

Like Google Earth it offers satellite, hybrid, terrain and panoramic maps but the software behind it is often unstable and the images are nowhere near as detailed as Google’s. The only other two companies of note to have even a slight chance of knocking Google Earth from its lofty perch are phone giants Nokia and relative newcomers Cyclomedia. Nokia Maps uses technology derived from 3D modelling company ‘Earthmine’ to map a number of American and European cities in a much more in depth manner than Bing Maps. However very few cities are currently covered and the software is glitchy at best. Cyclomedia on the other hand uses its own camera mounted cars in much the same way as Google, however as the company is still in its infancy they can’t possibly hope to compete. However the way Cyclomedia combines its quality captured images with geographical orientations is genuinely interesting and it also allows user photo contribution. In short, not a contender yet, but certainly one to keep an eye out for.

Conclusion

Google Earth has been downloaded over a billion times in the last 5 years, a monumental achievement that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Google Earth feature set is endless and ever expanding (we haven’t even touched on the weather options and the slider which allows users to select the time of day) and infinitely useable and as the software itself is completely free of charge (though a charge is required for commercial use) there is no good reason not to join the revolution today!

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