Google Earth: Atlas or mirror world?

Frank at Google Earth Blog is already doing an excellent job looking at and explaining the new features of Google Earth, and so is Google Lat-Long blog, so no need for duplicate posting here. What you’ll find instead is some more esoteric observations, ranging from the philosophical to the mundane.

The philosophical:

It occurs to me that the individual improvements that comprise this latest revamp fall into two categories — let’s call them brains and beauty. I get a lot more excited about the improvements to the brains of Google Earth, though I realize that it’s beauty wich turns heads, and which people “want” (or “cling” to ;-).

How to define those two categories? Brainy improvements improve the quality of the information that Google Earth delivers, or improve the efficiency of access to existing information — they improve the function of Google Earth as an atlas. Beauty improvements, on the other hand, improve the function of Google Earth as a plausible mirror world, an ever-more accurate simulacrum of Earth.

Atlas or mirror world, what’s the difference? Their functions are in fact poles apart. Atlases filter out as much as possible that which is not information or which obscures information. Mirror worlds, on the other hand, aim for the accents and details that provide a sheen of reality — precisely that which atlases strip off in the pursuit of clarity. Atlases try to augment reality by pushing high-information content to the fore. Mirror worlds do not.

These two functions can conflict if they exist in one application, and indeed I feel Google Earth is acquiring something of a split personality with this release. I’m not really complaining; you can turn off many of the improvements that are propelling Google Earth to its mirror-world destiny, but it is still the case that resources are being expended by the team on making Google Earth pretty, sometimes even at the expense of clarity.

I’ll explain, but I’ll start by categorizing the most recent release’s improvements into brains and beauty:

Brains:

Revamped navigation controls

easily viewable acquisition dates

Street View in Google Earth

12 new languages

Flash support for Mac

Beauty:

More and better buildings

New sunlight control

New atmosphere

I think most of the brainy improvements are uncontroversially brainy, but why do I regard the new buildings and the new sunlight controls as cosmetic? Let’s take each in turn:

More and better buildings: It’s true that the rendering of 3D buildings is now much more efficient, and that there are a lot more of them, but why doesn’t this constitute a huge informational boost? Because the satellite imagery already tells us there are buildings in those places; there is precious little else added by a 3D representation without metadata such as: Are the buildings residential, office, factory? Who owns them, when were they built, how high, who built them, how much was paid for them, what businesses are inside? Do they have websites, do they deliver?

A lot of this no doubt will arrive down the line, but until then, the buildings are pretty rather than informationally dense.

New sunlight control: When NASA World Wind got a feature just like this last year, I remember biting my tongue lest my critique be seen as partisan, but I did not really regard that functionality to be something that increased the informational quotient of World Wind much; I feel the same criticism now holds for the implementation in Google Earth.

The sunlight control is useful in one specific way — to see where on Earth it is night and day at a specific hour. But when it comes to lighting landscapes and buildings at sunrise or sunset, I don’t see the value besides eye-candy appeal.

First of all, the sunlight control is a bit of a misnomer. We’re not actually seeing the effect of sunlight: Buildings and mountain peaks do not generate actual shadows on neighbors when the sun hangs low on the horizon. Instead, we get shading as an inverse function of how much a surface faces a light source we’ll call the Sun.

Shouldn’t I be happy that Google Earth isn’t going all out for realistic shadows but instead is giving us a shading tool, which we can use to tease out terrain features? I would be if the light source were movable to ad hoc locations other than where the sun can be — for example, if I could make it revolve around the sky at 10 degrees above the horizon at locations other than the North Pole currently, I’d be happy, indeed. (Do go to the North Pole and try it, though. I really works, there.)

What I’m trying to say is that the current implementation falls between two chairs. It’s not quite accurate in terms of mirror worldliness, but is still limited in scope by its mirror-world aspirations.

New atmosphere: One place where I know I disagree with Google Earth Blog’s Frank Taylor is that I like to be able to see the little rectangular strips of high resolution imagery across the face of Google Earth when zoomed out, whereas Frank would prefer the look to be seamless and realistic, and prefers the zoomed out Google Earth to look just like the real thing.

For me, however, those rectangular strips represent information. They promise a lot more information if I zoom in on them, and also hint that there’s something there worth taking a high-resolution image of. I feel that this kind of information should trump a realistic view of Earth. And while the new atmospheric look certainly helps with the realism, it filters out too much of the kind of detail that I feel makes Google Earth useful when zoomed out. Yes, you can turn it off, but it’s turned on by default. I feel version 4.2′s atmosphere had a much better information/realism balance.

Priorities:

So what would I have prioritized instead of buildings, sunlight and a thicker atmosphere? Well: A projection that is friendly towards the poles; 3D bathymetry; better tour creation support; GeoRSS support; better search filters. These functions would all tilt Google Earth back towards the atlas end of the spectrum. Of course, that’s not necessarily where the money is. Google Earth is ad-supported, and nobody searches for pizza at the poles or in the Mariana Trench. And when Microsoft Virtual Earth does things like add lots of new buildings and everyone applauds, it’s hard not to want to compete. But that’s okay; in the end I much prefer a free mirror world with atlas functions than nothing at all.

That’s all the philosophy I can muster tonight. Now for the mundane stuff.

The mundane stuff:

Bear in mind that this latest version is still beta, so some stuff doesn’t work well. On the Mac, I’ve found the keyboard controls to sometimes lock up, even on a new install on a new account. If you’re using GE for a must-succeed presentation, best to stick to what you know works.

Another reason to ease into the new version is that the keyboard controls have changed. [On the Mac,] Command + up-arrow or down-arrow previously let you zoom in and out, but have now been mapped to the new look-around control. Zooming is now linked to the function + arrows combo. It takes some getting used to, unless of course you use the on-screen controls or a SpaceNavigator.

There’s one new preference item: You can turn off the new auto tilting feature that you get by default as you zoom in by right-clicking and drag the mouse up/down or using the on-screen controls.

Another subtle change: You can no longer filter the default layers by Core/All/Active layers only. Considering that it was a little-used feature that could generate confusion, this simplification of the UI is welcome.

One thing I think is a bit of a loss: No longer do we get a precise percent figure in the status bar showing how far along the download of current view’s imagery is. Now it’s a growing circular arc that slowly grows into a completed circle. Frustratingly, the arc sometimes gets smaller!

Turn on layers or placemarks in Google Earth, switch to Google Sky and you still get to see that content, floating among the stars. Surely this bug can’t be that hard to fix?

Small gripes, really. To be honest, I’m having way too much fun watching and waiting for the next move in the Iran-Google war of wills. It sure helps that Google has little or no business interests Iran, and that it still has a lovely concession up its sleeve: Offering to make a localized Farsi version that omits the Arabian Gulf reference, in accordance with their “primary, common local” doctrine. (Just don’t call Farsi Farsi:-)

9 thoughts on “Google Earth: Atlas or mirror world?”

  1. One important feature I see from an information perspective is the ability to have 3d models clickable like placemarks. Right now it looks like it only works with best of 3d warehouse buildings. It would be nice if you could load individual interior details as models that you can click on for information.

  2. Hey Stefan, interesting observations. First off, I don’t really disagree with you over the view of Earth. In fact, I agree it can be useful to see the strips of satellite photos from a global perspective. I’ve never advocated adding the Blue Marble views as the only way to view the Earth. I just would like to have them as a built-in layer you could turn on and off (with the complete 12-month versions). I think the seasonal versions provide useful information as well – since they tell you the relative vegetation / snow conditions expected for each month of the year. Whereas most of the satellite photos are “summer” shots.

    One thing I don’t agree with you: I think there is a purpose to having “beauty” in this application. And, I think applications like these not only can serve the two purposes (atlas functionality and cosmetically nice looking appearances), but already do. In fact, I would say part of Google Earth’s popularity has a lot to do with how good it makes the presentation of the data look. As long as the “beauty” functions can be turned off and do not interfere with the functions – I think they should be available. Besides, the Earth is a beautiful place – except where humans have messed with it. I think an application about the Earth should include that aspect.

    I also disagree with you about 3D buildings. I think 3D buildings provide very functional “brainy” purposes. They enable us to understand the dimensions of the buildings, we can “recognize” a city by looking at the 3D view, they can help us get our bearings on a city we haven’t previously visited (a basic function that maps/atlases also attempt to provide), they might help emergency workers quickly get situational awareness for places they aren’t familiar, they can help pilots plan a trip and get familiarity with a city, and I’m sure there are many other applications. Besides, I like flying around 3D buildings and terrain. The more the merrier! Fortunately I can find even more buildings to fly around in VE. Plus, they have trees! :-) But, I’m sure we’ll hear your thoughts on that when you go to compare VE to GE.

    I definitely do agree with you that Google should work on the problem of visualizing the poles, bathymetry, tour creation (scripting), GeoRSS, and searching. And, my top request for improvement in GE is the layers interface and adding search for layers.

  3. One other thing – the problem with the atmosphere “blocking” the view when zoomed out is partially a Mac problem. For some reason the atmosphere is much brighter on the Mac than on Windows. I’ve suggested to Google already that they need to make it less bright (less obscuring) on the Mac. This also causes problems when viewing atmospheric effects at surface levels.

  4. Google Earth implemented beauty applying a satellite photo world map wrapped in a 3D sphere, instead of a flat image giving us the possibility to fly from one place to the other, also using (not random) stars as background of Google Earth, the terrain feature, the clouds and the previous atmosphere. comparing how much effort Google Earth has put into brain and how much into beauty, the balance goes way much into brain. so is good once in a while to take care about beauty, beauty is art, art feeds the soul.

    some users are not there because of the data, they are there to see places that in their entire life would not have the possibility to see, i know, it’s not the whole experience of actually being there, but is the same as an artistic photography, gives you a bit of the feeling of going to the himalayas or the grand canyon or the sahara desert, is quite an experience, now that you can see the shadows moving in, the sunrise and sunset, the atmosphere, is breathtaking, it’s a great experience for the soul.

    sometimes art and functionality have to go together to make something great, like a strong build beautifully painted house.

    I love the art of Google Earth.

  5. “if I could make it revolve around the sky at 10 degrees above the horizon at locations other than the North Pole currently, I’d be happy”

    This is possible in World Wind, so why do you “feel the same criticism” for GE and WW? :D

  6. “if I could make it revolve around the sky at 10 degrees above the horizon at locations other than the North Pole currently, I’d be happy”

    I wouldn’t be, the sun has to be at the correct position.

    Pretty soon GE will become an even better tool for solar eclipse planning…

  7. Hello my friend

    I am Kourosh, writing to you from the honorable and glittering coastlines of eternal Persian Gulf

    Did you ever know that the only existing gulf in the Middle East is called Persian Gulf since 2200 BC?

    Did you ever know that Mevlana whose name has been selected as the 2007′s slogan by UNESCO is a Persian poet who has not even a single couplet of Turkish or Arabian poet?

    Did you ever know that Saffron as the most expensive herb in the world has a Persian homeland located in the territory of Ancient Persia?

    There are thousands of facts that you have to know about the most ancient civilization and the richest culture on the earth. The interesting realities about Iran that western mainstream media will hide from you could be found in http://helloyahoomail.net/en

    I invite you to take a look at the blog that has been mainly designed to protest the immoral Yahoo removal of Iran’s honorable name from signup countries list.

  8. Hello my friend

    I am Kourosh, writing to you from the honorable and glittering coastlines of eternal Persian Gulf

    Did you ever know that the only existing gulf in the Middle East is called Persian Gulf since 2200 BC?

    Did you ever know that Mevlana whose name has been selected as the 2007′s slogan by UNESCO is a Persian poet who has not even a single couplet of Turkish or Arabian poet?

    Did you ever know that Saffron as the most expensive herb in the world has a Persian homeland located in the territory of Ancient Persia?

    There are thousands of facts that you have to know about the most ancient civilization and the richest culture on the earth. The interesting realities about Iran that western mainstream media will hide from you could be found in http://helloyahoomail.net/en

    I invite you to take a look at the blog that has been mainly designed to protest the immoral Yahoo removal of Iran’s honorable name from signup countries list.

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