​Forgot about Google Earth? Google aims to jog your memory

The search giant rebuilds Google Earth from the ground up, letting you travel from the Eiffel Tower to Bryce Canyon. And it's now on mobile and the web.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

When most people think of Google Earth, they think of a desktop app or browser plug-in that you have to download to your computer and that can be a bit clunky to navigate.

Google hopes to change that mindset.

The search giant on Tuesday launched a re-envisioned Google Earth, which lets users explore satellite imagery and photographs of the planet with new tools like interactive stories, destination discovery and 3D navigation. And for the first time, it's fully available on the web and mobile.

"We're starting with more of a consumption experience," Sean Askay, engineering manager for Google Earth, said at a press preview. "The direction we're interested in with Earth is letting you tell the stories."

When Google Earth first launched in 2005, it quickly became a beloved resource for teachers, scientists, humanitarian groups and armchair travelers. But as new tech -- augmented reality, virtual reality and 3D graphics -- became more present in people's lives, Google Earth's shine began to fade. It's been five years since Google released a new version of the program. But now, with Earth's reboot, Google aims to recapture people's imaginations.

"You use Google Maps to find your way," Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth, said a colleague once told her. "You use Google Earth to get lost."

Getting lost

Google Earth's rebuild, two years in the making, comes with a bevy of new features.

It's integrated with "Knowledge Cards," which give users more information about the places they're seeing; "Points of Interest" that Google recommends users check out when they're in certain locations; and "Feeling Lucky," which randomly picks from one of 20,000 less-known locales for people to explore, like the Oodaira Hot Springs in Yamagata, Japan, or Pemba Island off the Swahili Coast of eastern Africa.

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Google partnered with Sesame Street and other creators for its Voyager feature.


One of the centerpieces of the new Google Earth is called Voyager. It's filled with interactive stories from different homes around the world, like the woven reed dwellings the Uros people live in on Peru's Lake Titicaca and the steep Himalayan mountainsides that house elusive snow leopards. For Voyager, Google is partnering with creators like Sesame Street, NASA and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall.

"We think of it as the front page of Google Earth," said Gopal Shah, product manager for Google Earth. "You can get lost in this stuff."

When users are traveling around the planet exploring different spots, they can now also view the world in 3D. Via the 3D button, they can tilt and rotate the map to look up walls, over cliffs or inside buildings. In certain locations, like the Grand Canyon, people can also watch a 360-degree video to get an intimate sense of the settings.

"It contextualizes the story, I can see just how steep the cliffs are," Shah said. "I can immerse myself in the environment."

Scientists, governments and nonprofit organizations have long used Google Earth in their work. For example, Halo Trust uses the app to map the presence of landmines left over from the wars in Cambodia and Angola. And Australia's Department of Environment and Conservation used the program to discover the formation of rare fringing coral reefs. Google said it plans to continue with these types of partnerships.

The new Google Earth will be available on Chrome and Android. It will also be available on Apple's iOS in coming weeks.

"I think of it as we now have the most comprehensive geo-browser of what we know of the world," Moore said. "And it's just the start."

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