Google Earth: explore a 3D interactive world from your desktop


Google Earth is a fully interactive 3D representation of the globe and (more recently) of space, with interactive representations of galaxies and constellations.

Users are able to explore/navigate the virtual world and view and interact with a growing number of “layers” of information that are continuously being added and/or refined, such as 3D buildings, panoramic images of places, real-time weather information, roads, etc. Users are also able to interact with a growing number representations of well known places and monuments worldwide.

We are all familiar with satellite/aerial images used on Google maps. Google Earth takes this a step further by using this information (as well as a number of other information sources) to construct a virtual, fully interactive 3D globe. Astronomical pictures are also used to add a space exploration component called Google Sky (more on this below).

What’s interesting about this world is not just the ability to fly around, zoom in and explore, but the multiple layers of information that you can switch on and off (e.g. 3D buildings, image galleries, borders and labels, weather, etc.) as well as a growing number of pre-defined places that you can visit and explore virtually.

As of version 4.3 there have been a number of noteworthy additions to Google Earth, including a revamped navigation system, 3D “photorealistic” models of buildings, monuments, even entire cities, and time lapse views where you can control the time of day that you are viewing something in or even observe an accelerated sunrise-to-sunset scene at any spot in the world. “Street view” photos are also added, which display panoramic photographs of a particular sport that show you what it is really like to be there (similar in concept to the Panoye panoramic photo sharing site).

Community involvement: what is really exciting is that anyone can contribue to Google Earth, and many of the content is in fact either contributed by fans and enthusiasts or linked from

(Another) Google Earth Screenshot

other community based projects such as Wikipedia. For example, fans who have modeled and submitted buildings in their home towns using 3D modeling tools such as Google Sketchup or taken


photos and associated them with places on Panoramio. Here are more notes on this program:

  • Resolution: different locations have different resolutions, but most of the earth’s territory is covered within at least 15 meters of resolution, and some, such as Las Vegas and Cambridge, MA, have the highest resolution at 6 inches (15 cm).
  • Navigation: you can search by address (in some countries), enter geographical coordinates, click on a an entry in the “places” section in the left pane, or simply use the on-screen 3D controls (with mouse wheel and arrow key integration).
  • Google Earth - layersLayers: you can check and uncheck different layers of information in order to activate/deactivate them inside the main display. The amount of information that can be displayed is nothing short of astounding, from Panoramio pictures to related Wikipedia and New York Times articles to Metro transit lines, roads, international borders, weather/clouds, YouTube videos, restaurants, etc. The more you expand the layer categories the more you realize just how much they’ve crammed in there (see thumbnail to the right for the full expanded list of informational layers).
  • Google Earth Street viewGoogle street view: click on the “street view” photograph icons on your screen and you are able to view immersive, street-level 360 photos, which apparently were taken by street level cameras mounted on cars. You can view these from multiple points of view.
  • 3D modeling: a lot of cities, landmarks are modeled and rendered photorealistically in 3D. This remains a work in progress, and unless you live in a high-profile urban area the house/apartment where you live is probably not modeled (the good news: you can create a model yourself and submit it to Google Earth). There are some cities, such as Hamburg, Germany, that are modeled in their entirety, and a number of famous landmarks are there as well (e.g. the Eiffel Tower, Manhattan Island, The Grand Canyon, etc.) You can get to most of these from the “Places” section.
  • Sky mode: allows you to view the stars and astronomical images. The main source of information for this seems to be images from the Hubble Space Telescope that are released into the public domain. Exploring Google sky is very similar to exploring the earth, but will likely only appeal to astronomy enthusiasts. For a web based version of Google Sky go here.
  • Lighting/time of day: one of the newest features is the ability to control the exact time of day that you are viewing a location, enabling you to visualize what it would look like, say, at the break of dawn vs. midday. This is nice, but the fact that buildings, say, in Manhattan do not light up when you view them at nighttime makes the
  • Pixellization: a number of sites may be subject to purposeful concealment/pixellization. This is by request of official and other agencies that feel that do not wish to have their premises revelaed.
  • Other features: the ability to store your favorite locations/place giant placemarkers, find businesses, get directions, a flight simulator, and others.

Differences between free and paid versions: Google Earth is free, while Google plus adds GPS integration for a $20 annual fee. Google Earth Pro ($400) is “business oriented” and includes a lot more features, include a “GIS data importer”, movie making functions, advanced printing, and other additions.

Freewaregenius 5-Star Pick

The verdict: this is one of those WOW-inducing programs that is ultra interesting and really nice to play around with and show to people. What is more impressive is the way the people at Google have integrated massive amounts of information into a geographical interface in a way that makes sense. You do not have to spend a lot of time playing around with this software to get the sense that this program is pregnant with possibilities yet to come. Overall quite an amazing accomplishment.

Version Tested: 4.3

Compatibility: Windows, Mac, Linux. Internet connection required.

Go to the Google Earth page to download the latest version (approx 7.3 megs).

  • Don’t forget about the secret aerial pilot game!

  • Samer

    @ Kelexanda,
    The secret aerial pilot game is a secret no more in this version, and can be accessed from tools > “Enter flight simulator”!

  • Okay, so the only things I dislike about Google Earth are the lack of an “Avoid Highways” switch, the inability to Re-Route by dragging, and the lack of a multi point route planner… all of which are on the Web Version. I’m not quite sure why they’d release a “Desktop Version” of a Web Service, and then cripple it… ;? (Not having tightly integrated search/information features would be understandable, but there’s more of that than is even needed. O.o ) So while I like it in theory, it’s inferiority to It’s Own Web Based Service makes it less usefull than it could be. (And I’m sure it’s got some other niche it’s filling, but come on, it’s a program that gives directions, let’s work on those features and niche away later… :P)