Is That Google Earth, Or The New Sim City?

By June 7, 2012

Google unveiled a graphically intense vision for Google Earth during a press event Wednesday, including footage that shows comprehensively-rendered city skylines complete with buildings and foliage.

“An important next step in improving all of these areas – comprehensiveness, accuracy, and usability of our maps – is the ability to model the world in 3D,” wrote vice president of engineering Brian McClendon. “Since 2006, we’ve had textured 3D buildings in Google Earth, and today we are excited to announce that we will begin adding 3D models to entire metropolitan areas to Google Earth.”

The search giant’s map service is patched together from public, commercial, satellite, aerial and street-level data and images. The challenge, McClendon said, is to bring together those many sources into one product that delivers a consistent, useful service across geographic areas and terrain types.

The new technology will roll out first on Android devices, during the next few weeks. Google will also introduce an offline mode that lets users download maps of areas where they won’t have web access, like subways or remote areas.

One of the most graphically impressive aspects of the new technology will stem from an algorithm that produces 3D models of buildings, terrain and natural features from 45-degree aerial imagery the company already captures.

“By the end of the year we aim to have 3D coverage for metropolitan areas with a combined population of 300 million people,” McClendon wrote. “I have been working on mapping technology most of my life. We’ve made more progress, more quickly as an industry than I ever imagined possible.”

The intense new cache of features may be something of a nose-thumbing at Apple, which may soon ditch Google Maps for an app that is being developed in-house.

Google also highlighted strides it has made in packing all the equipment now found in a Street View car into a backpack, which will be used to take pictures in hard-to-access areas like the Grand Canyon and “the wilderness.” Street View’s image could use a makeover, after privacy advocates decried an abortive investigation into personal wi-fi information the vehicles were covertly recording.