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There goes the virtual neighborhood

There goes the virtual neighborhood

Enough with the jokes about Google plotting to take over the world; the Internet giant is formally inviting you to build a new world of your own, and it's handing over a tool to do just that. Google just released a free version of the 3D modeling tool SketchUp, made by @Last Software, which Google gobbled up last month. Whether you're building a bookcase or renovating your house or plotting to build a solar-powered subdivision, SketchUp can help you sketch the plans and add your designs to Google Earth. Google is offering free storage space for your graphics at its 3D Warehouse site, where you can also grab other people's models to populate your own landscapes.

The SketchUp download took me about five minutes. Once it was installed, I spent about the same amount of time doodling a 3D house with skylights and a barn, with help from SketchUp's tutorial, and no sense of perspective or design training on my part. I love how the Push-Pull tool lets you give depth to any shape with the swipe of a mouse. Novices could easily get addicted; pros can spring for the $500 SketchUp Pro 5.

You can download SketchUp here. Unfortunately, you'll need a powerful PC with 512MB of RAM to run SketchUp. We'll be playing with the free SketchUp and its plug-in for Google Earth over the weekend; watch out for our review early next week.