Monday, 01 May, 2006

Google Earth

Google Earth is hard to characterize.  It's a rich client interface to the satellite imagery and road maps of Google Maps, combined with Google search and a healthy dose of community involvement to put geographic data and locale information at your fingertips.  It's quite surprising what all is included.

What I'm talking about here is the free version of Google Earth.  There's also Google Earth Plus, which for $20 per year gives you better performance, ability to read information from GPS devices, better printing, and some other features.  Google Earth Pro gives even better performance, spreadsheet import, overlays, layers, and other business-oriented features.  It's priced at $400 per year.  There also are several higher-level packages available for businesses that depend on mapping software.

The free version has all kinds of cool stuff.  For example, I typed in my address and it zoomed right in on my house.  Zooming out a bit, I asked it to show me restaurants and hotels in the area.  They appeared almost instantly.  The coordinates might be off just a bit (hotels, for example, were shown about a block north of their real locations), but the data was there.  I could overlay the major roads and find my way with no trouble.

The cool part, though, was the annotations.  I thought I'd try to find the hotel I stayed at in Tokyo.  I managed to get close by locating the Imperial Palace, but then I got lost in the maze of streets.  Until I turned on annotations.  All of a sudden Jimbōchō Station and the Sakura Hotel showed up with annotations and I was able to find my hotel in just a few seconds based on those landmarks.  Clicking on the Sakura Hotel annotation brought up some info about the hotel, written by somebody who'd stayed there and had annotated it and a few other points of interest.

Google Earth is kind of like a Wiki for geographic information.  Provided it's moderated, it could prove invaluable for anybody who's traveling to an unfamiliar area.  I've only just started playing with it, but I'm fascinated by the possibilities.  More as I get an opportunity to fiddle with it, but you really should take a look for yourself.  If nothing else, it's a much nicer way to explore maps and satellite images than the clunky Web browser interface.