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Google tapped for new 3D view of the Bay Bridge

Google Earth, now an integral part of a public-works project, lets users zip around an unfinished version of the Bay Area's Bay Bridge.

OAKLAND, Calif.--Google on Friday introduced an interactive view of the San Francisco Bay Area's Bay Bridge to users of its Google Earth mapping software.

The new view (zipped file), which can be seen by all Google Earth users who have 3D buildings turned on, provides a sneak peak at a completed version of the bridge. This includes a live representation of ongoing construction of the self-anchored suspension span, the final piece that will cross the divide between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island, connecting the East Bay to downtown San Francisco.

Google and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) held a joint press conference on Friday to discuss the partnership. Google Earth co-founder and chief technology advocate Michael Jones described the new layer as exciting and important.

"Now we all know really know what the view will be before we go out onto the bridge, before we go on the book, before we do anything," Jones said. "That kind of understanding of the future--it's like evolving people. We have a vision into the future."

The Bay Bridge build in-progress, as seen in real life (left) and Google Earth (right). Josh Lowensohn/CNET
The shot on the right shows what the suspension bridge will look like when it's finished. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Jones went on to say that this marks the first of hopefully many Google partnerships on public works projects across the country. "If the people of California really respond to it, if other projects embrace it, and if understanding what your government is doing with big construction projects becomes a normal part of conversation of society...everything that was big would be a personal part of your reality."

An interesting problem Caltrans ran into when proposing the idea to Google was that it is Google's policy to not show structures in Google Earth that have not yet been built. As a compromise, users can see the entire thing, but the parts that are not yet finished show up as translucent. As Caltrans continues its construction on the bridge (which is estimated to finish in 2013), the finished segments will turn solid. Pieces that are currently being worked on are depicted as green.

Along with showing users progress information on current and future plans, Google and Caltrans have kept an interactive record of what has happened on the way. Each completed piece has a photo and video record of getting placed, which Caltrans hopes will be entertaining or educational to people who want to see how already-completed stretches were put into place. These items are housed both on Google Earth and on the Bay Bridge's construction Web site, a link to which has been placed in Google Earth.

Going forward, other parts of the bridge build could end up inside of Google Earth. Caltrans has been keeping a record of photographs, including aerial shots, which lend well to interactive features within the software program. Until then, users will have to stick to zooming around the 3D views of the unfinished giant.

Google Earth links: PC, Mac.