Maps and rooftop gazing have never been so cool or compelling as they are via Google Earth.
Google Earth ( earth.google.com ) combines satellite imagery, maps and the power of the search to create a brand new approach to exploring the physical world digitally.
By typing in a street address, city, or latitude and longitude coordinates, you can use the Internet to zoom in from space to sidewalk and discover a bird's-eye view of your offline reality.
Google has scanned, indexed and catalogued detailed photographs of most of the planet (particularly major North American cities) and cross-referenced geographic space with results from its formidable search engine.
You can explore cities, find restaurants and hospitals or check out your favourite historical monuments simply by searching for them. When multiple results for your query are available, you can select one and watch as you're flown across the bluish-green planet as if in a flight simulator on autopilot. You can also ask for directions between two places and be shown the route before you depart.
For most people, the first destinations in Google Earth are their current home, childhood homes and various schools, workplaces and personal or private spots. Zooming in from a macro view of the big blue marble to the roof of the jail where you spent prom night sobering up can be a special experience.
Other favourites, according to the excellent Sightseeing With Google Satellite Maps website ( perljam.net/ google-satellite-maps/ ), are Bill Gates's house, Area 51 and an airplane graveyard. Google also lists its own top destinations ( earth.google.com/sites/ ), but they're not nearly as interesting as Paris, Mecca, the Sphinx, Beijing or the Hollywood sign.
Destinations on the map are frequently cross-referenced with corresponding websites and broader search results. It's an evolved state of cartography that deeply embeds contextual information in a sense of place.
While exploring the world, users can toggle the appearance on the map of restaurants, hotels, bars, ATMs, schools and much more. Most of this isn't available for Canadian cities yet, but is on offer in the U.S. (particularly Cambridge, Massachusetts).
In Toronto and a few other tourist destinations, users now see place markers that other users have posted in the Google Earth Community ( bbs. keyhole.com ), and this practice is expected to grow significantly in the mid-term.
Having businesses' place markers appear directly on the maps with relevant address and website information allows Google to focus development on its local search initiatives. If a local Thai restaurant wants to advertise only to people looking for Thai restaurants in Toronto, Google can qualify that relevant advertising accordingly. This exponentially expands Google's base of potential location-based advertisers and makes the browser the legitimate 21st-century replacement for the instantly antiquated Yellow Pages.
One terrific feature of Google Earth is the 3-D rendering of some U.S. cities. Using the Tilt feature, which changes the angle of perspective, a user can explore horizontally from street-level instead of from above. Some satellite scans even allow you to see the sides of buildings. Hyper-surreal first-person Quake-like explorations of San Francisco and New York, for example, are available to users who want to immerse themselves in a city's map.
Google Earth is currently in beta (meaning bugs and some map coordinate problems are still being worked out), but it's generally in great shape and free for all to download and use, though it doesn't support Mac or Linux yet. Premium versions Google Earth Plus and Google Earth Pro are available for annual subscriptions of $20 and $400 respectively (valuable if you want GPS compatibility, data import and annotation functionality).
Try typing in a local address or NOW Lounge from the space view and you'll appreciate where we are on Earth as the focus smoothly narrows in on your specified coordinates. It's unequalled by any other software available today, though Microsoft's Virtual Earth is expected to launch later this summer and a product from Yahoo is expected, too.
If you're a Mac user and want to try something similar, EarthBrowser ( www.earthbrowser.com ) for $36.50 is your only option. NASA's World Wind ( worldwind.arc.nasa.gov ), too, is only available for PC.
Google has smartly embraced the greater development community by releasing an Application Programming Interface (API) that allows developers to create tools that can interract with the Google Earth data.
Only a few weeks after launch, overlays of crime statistics, census data and house prices in various U.S. cities are already available. Information about the many Google Earth Mashups can be found at Google Maps Mania ( googlemapsmania.blogspot.com ).
Google Earth isn't quite the real-time interactive globe described in William Gibson's Neuromancer or the sunglasses his character McGuffin wore in Virtual Light, but it's definitely another instance of a technologist's science fiction moving one solid step closer to reality.