Google Earth

Google Earth is a "virtual globe"-type mirror world created by Google. The application uses satellite imagery to give users a birds-eye view of nearly any place on Earth. In some locations, the resolution is such that the user can zoom to head level, and see the location as if they were there. For some features, Google Earth projects its satellite images onto 3D models, making what would otherwise be a flat world into a more lifelike three dimensional visualization. Google Earth also integrates Google Street View, providing images from streets in cities around the world.



  • What would become Google Earth originated as EarthViewer 3D, created by Keyhole, Inc. The application was released in 2001. The company's press release discussed the benefits that EarthViewer 3D could provide for sectors such as real estate, energy, and public planning.[1]
    • By 2002, Keyhole's technology had been used by ABC and NBC to show aerial views of Afghanistan in their news broadcasts.
    • Also in 2002, a consumer version of EarthViewer 3D was released.[2] Consumers were able to use a version of EarthViewer 3D for $79 a year. The following year, the company received so much attention after CNN used EarthViewer to simulate flying over Baghdad that their website was overwhelmed by the number of users.[3]
  • In February 2003, Keyhole gained CIA funding, through the Agency-funded venture capital firm In-Q-Tel. The CIA writes that it worked closely with other intelligence community organizations to tailor Keyhole’s systems to meet their needs. “The finished product transformed the way intelligence officers interacted with geographic information and earth imagery. Users could now easily combine complicated sets of data and imagery into clear, realistic visual representations.”
    • EarthViewer 3D continued to be used for news broadcasts by TV networks. All of this attracted the attention of Google, which bought EarthViewer 3D in 2004, thus laying the groundwork for the development of Google Earth.[4]
  • Google released Google Earth in 2005. Unlike its predecessor, Earth was free for consumers.
    • By the end of 2005, some countries, such as Russia and India, had already expressed concern that the application represented a security threat.[5]
    • Microsoft quickly followed Google with a competing product, MSN Virtual Earth.[6]
    • 3D was, from the beginning, a major feature of Google Earth. The initial press release announcing the product describes it as having 3D buildings in major US cities as well as 3-dimensional mountains, valleys, and canyons.[7]
  • In 2007, Google released Sketchup, a 3D modeling application, for free in an effort to increase the number of users who contributed 3D models of buildings for Google Earth. Google hoped that this would allow them to replace their flawed automatically-generated models with more accurate handmade models.[8][9]
  • 2008 saw Google maps expand into the mobile realm, with the release of an app for the iPhone.[10]
    • That same year, Google also released Google Map Maker, a tool that allowed users to make corrections to Google's maps. These corrections would allow Google Earth and Google Maps to become more accurate.[11]
  • The following year, Google again attempted to leverage its users to improve Google Earth, releasing Google Building Maker. This online-only tool was meant to make 3D modeling easier and more accessible, thus increasing the number of 3D models submitted for use in Google Earth.
  • Also in 2009, Google brought Google Earth to the automotive world with a specialized version available in the Audi A8.[18]
  • In 2012, Google decided that automatically-generated 3D models, which it had initially used for Earth's 3D feature, had reached the point at which they were suitable to be used in lieu of handmade models. Although the early models had been inaccurate, by 2012 the technology had grown sufficiently advanced that Google could begin to phase out user-designed models for computer-generated ones. The technique used, known as photogrammetry, used comparisons of photographs of the same point taken from several different angles to calculate the size, depth, and shape of a building or feature.[8]
  • November 2016- Google releases Google Earth for a new platform: Virtual Reality. The application, created for use with the HTC Vive, allows the user to immerse themselves in environments all over the globe. The user can fly about and walk through cities from a first-person perspective. By changing the scale, the user can stomp through cities like a giant or navigate about as a normal-sized person. The application also includes several tours, which incorporate audio and music to create a fully immersive experience.[12]
    • Several outlets have described Google Earth VR as VR's "killer app" in their coverage.[13][14]


Google Earth's features include worldwide satellite and aerial imagery, 3D models of many buildings and features, location data such as roads and place names, Google Street View integration, geotagged image integration from a number of sources, a sightseeing tour option, and a flight simulator. The program also allows the user to view older or lower quality aerial imagery through the use of a historical imagery option.


Google Earth is, or has been, available on a large number of platforms. The first platform was Microsoft Windows, but the application currently also supports Linux and Mac OS X.[15] For tablets and phones, there are also versions of Google Earth available for iOS and Android.[16] There is also a browser plugin, so that developers can allow users to interact with Google Earth from within their website, without running a separate application.[17] In 2009, Google Earth also came to cars, with a specialized version in the Audi A8.[18] Finally, Google Earth plunged into virtual reality (VR) in 2016, with the release of Google Earth VR for the HTC Vive.[12]


Since its release, Google Earth has faced a number of different problems and been subjected to criticism for various aspects of its features. Almost immediately, Google Earth was seen as a potential security threat, with complaints by the Russian Security Service, the FSB, as well as by India, South Korea, and Thailand. India and Pakistan had both restricted high resolution satellite photographs of certain types of sites, leading to some anger when such images became available.[5] Security concerns surrounding Google Earth have been vindicated, to a degree, by reports that Palestinian terrorists have used Google Earth to find population centers at which to aim rockets directed at Israel[19], as well as by reports that terrorists used Google Earth to plan attacks on British military bases in Iraq during the Iraq War.[20]


In the past, the roof of the White House has been censored, in order to hide security features (such as air defenses).[21] Currently, the White House, most of Foggy Bottom, the National Mall (except for the Lincoln Memorial), and the Capitol are all excluded from Google's automatic 3D modeling, presumably for security reasons.[22][23] The stark shift from two to three dimensions can clearly be seen in the image on the right.
A less dramatic, but still important problem is the quality of Google Earth's images. Google attempts to keep Earth relatively up-to-date by buying aerial and satellite images from a variety of providers.

Pixelated White House in 2010 Image Clear White House in Oct. 2012 Poor-Quality White House in Dec. 2012 Image
2010%20WH%20blurred%20-%20Copy.jpg WH%2010.12.2012%20-%20Copy.jpg WH%2012.17.2012%20-%20Copy.jpg

An algorithm determines which image is of the best quality and that image is then processed and added to Google Earth for a given area. The variety of sources and the different times and conditions in which an image was captured mean that often the quality of a newer image may not match that of an older one, causing the old one to be displayed for longer than would otherwise be possible.


Utilizing the historical imagery feature, it is possible to view older and/or lower quality imagery(which includes images newer than those otherwise displayed, if such images were of poor quality). While this provides more, and possibly more recent imagery, the quality of the imagery varies wildly.[24] The user therefore must choose between a lot of imagery and often more recent imagery, on the one hand, and quality imagery, on the other. Further complicating the matter, some image providers censor certain elements in their imagery, as can clearly be seen in the pixelated image of the White House from 2010 above.
Such censorship can also have a negative impact on user experience, taking away from the normally seamless exploring and inhibiting the sightseeing possible. The heavily censored Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands (image to the right) is an example of extremely jarring censorship. Censorship can occur due to a decision by the company providing the satellite imagery, due to a local law in the place where the imagery provider is based, or can be carried out by a government when it itself is providing the imagery.[25] While not Google's fault, censorship nevertheless adversely affects the user experience.

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