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Google Earth's ancient Roman holiday

Google Earth extends its satellite perspective to give virtual time-traveling tourists a 3D simulation of Rome in 320 A.D., as well as a dose of historical information.

Google Earth's new layer of ancient Rome offers virtual tourists the chance to explore an ancient city at its peak. Google

Google Earth is extending its satellite perspective to paint a picture of what the ancient city of Rome looked like nearly two millennia ago.

While satellites weren't around to give us a bird's eye view of the city in 320 A.D., Google's "Ancient Rome 3-D" offers a 3D simulation of the ancient city at the height of its power. The new layer for the tool allows virtual time-traveling tourists to fly around the city and zoom in to explore ancient structures as they likely looked at the time, including the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Circus Maximus. Pop-up windows offer historical information.

The project, which was unveiled Wednesday, is the first ancient city to be incorporated into Google Earth and was developed in collaboration with researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Virginia.

The computer graphics are based on the Plastico di Roma Antica, a plaster model that was created by Italian architect Italo Gismondi and finished three years before his death in 1974. (The model can be viewed at the city's Museo della Civilta Romana.)

The digitization project began in 1997 and took 10 years to complete. It then took 15 people the better part of a year to transfer the project to the Web.

And apparently, they got it right.

"What fascinates me most about this project is the accuracy of the details of the three-dimensional models," Gianni Alemanno, Rome's mayor, wrote in a blog posting on Google's site. "It's such a great experience to be able to admire the monuments, streets and buildings of Ancient Rome with a virtual camera that lets you go inside and see all the architectural details."

While the public's interest in ancient Rome has exploded due in large part to movies like Gladiator and TV shows like HBO's Rome, Google is promoting the new layer as an educational tool and has invited teachers to submit innovative lesson plans that incorporate the new feature.

In other Google globetrotting, the company recently announced that after recent launches in France, Spain, and Italy, Google's Street View is now available in six countries. Also, Street View cameras have been spotted in New Zealand.