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Google builds a better Earth

Google builds a better Earth

Tomorrow the Where 2.0 conference kicks off, but Google is doing its best to set the agenda by introducing a new version 4 beta of Google Earth today, as well as a major update to the Google Earth imagery and improved integration with the 3D design app, SketchUp.

Google Earth is already an attractive product, and the new version is a solid improvement. The biggest user interface change is the "More Earth, less interface," design. You can slide the bottom and left-hand navigation bars off the screen and have your display completely taken up with your Earth view. When you mouse over to the upper right of the screen, a subtle but useful navigation pane pops up.

The new navigation makes it easier to view the enhanced data on the Google servers. Google people say 30 percent of the world's population should be able to see their house in high resolution, plus nearly all cities and many major geographical landmarks have been updated with 70 cm or better resolution.

Google has also updated its 3D design application, SketchUp, and improved the integration of this program into Google Earth. This is one of the coolest new directions in this product. Now, from within Google Earth, you can demark a plot of land as the baseline for a SketchUp model and pull up walls from the image. Then, if you have a picture of the building you're working on, you can map the image of it onto the blank walls, stretch it to correct your perspective, and send the new photo-realistic building back to Google. Google execs expect that real estate professionals will start to send interns and college kids out with cameras to photograph their properties and build 3D models for them, which could make online house shopping even more interesting than it is right now (and it's pretty interesting already, thanks to Zillow and competitors).

So what of Google Maps? It's just a "different browser on the same database," one exec said. Indeed, as of today, the KML bookmarks Google Earth uses will work in Google Maps--just paste in the address and Maps will snap to the location as Earth would. Ultimately, the distinction between the two products should vanish, but for the moment Maps is all about utility and directions, while Earth is better for visualization and exploring.

Still missing from both versions are true bird's-eye images like Microsoft has. And one question was not answered at the press announcement: Where are the ads?