Google Earth is now available for the HTC Vive
If you have access to a Vive, try Google Earth VR for yourself before reading any further. It’s free. A team of engineers and filmmakers worked together on a cinematic introduction that I’ll never do justice. Go in blind. Feel all the feelings.
During the introduction sequence, you’re walking through Yosemite Valley like a giant looking down on El Capitan, peering over the edge of Half Dome. Then you’re kneeling down to get a better look at the Eiffel Tower, and shuffling through a cluster of Tokyo skyscrapers.
Toward the end of the three minute introduction to Google Earth, you move slowly away from the surface until you’re out in space, standing face to face with with the world and a message appears.
Welcome to Earth
You are now free to move about the planet.
I spoke with Product Manager Mike Podwal and Lead Engineer Dominik Kaeser about all that went into Google Earth. They’ve been working on this VR version since 2014 when it was a 20% project. Since then, they and many others have poured a great number of engineering years into the experience we see today. They talked about the challenges in adapting such a massive project for VR.
The most obvious challenge was performance. A lot of the groundwork had already been laid in previous versions of Google Earth, which originally went live in 2001. Since then, Google has been capturing more and more of the planet using satellite imagery, airplanes with custom camera equipment, and photogrammetry. Step one was foundational performance that would allow them to make all 196.9 million square miles enjoyable VR.
Another challenge was tuning the navigation system. They experimented with different ways to travel the globe in search of the right balance between comfort, immersion, and context.
They settled on flying as the main mode of transport. You move by holding a button down to fly across Earth’s surface. The higher you go, the faster you fly. In flight, your field of view narrows to keep you from getting sick. As an additional measure to keep you grounded, a faint grid appears below your feet when you’re suspended in mid air.
If flying isn’t your thing, there are other ways to get around. You can always plot a point on the small globe above your left controller. You can also spin the Earth at any time, which makes a very satisfying sound. Finally, you can access the menu to head directly to a specific place and go back to the places you’ve saved along the way.
The menu also includes a number of guided tours like the intro sequence, featuring some of the planets most beautiful cities, water features, deserts, and more. Each of them is roughly three minutes in length and highly recommended if you could use a breather.
The Overview Effect
Astronauts often report a cognitive shift in consciousness they experience during space flight called the overview effect. Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 described it as “an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”
Thanks to virtual reality, that same sense of awareness and connection is available to all of us. Without going down a political hollering hole, it’s pretty clear we could all benefit from opportunities to see the world from level ground. There’s a lot of hope among the VR community that this new medium will help us mend that disconnect. Google Earth is one of the most powerful examples we’ve seen of that potential so far.
Earth VR is available today through Steam Store for free. Stay tuned for more updates on Google Earth across other platforms in 2017.