Google Earth in 2012: A milestone for modern cartography

After months of expectation, Google has officially announced its plans to expand the current capabilities of Google Earth with the introduction of a range of groundbreaking new features. Most impressively, this will include fully 3D, photorealistic and interactive mapping of entire cities for Google Earth mobile apps by the end of the year, with the desktop equivalent to follow later. Furthermore, users of the Android version of Google Maps in over 100 countries will be able to download maps for offline usage.

While the company has included photorealistic imagery in Google Earth since 2006, it has only ever been fragmentary. Many users will be familiar with the frustrating areas of inaccessibility in the interactive map, caused by the fact that Google Earth has previously relied on multiple sources to create a patchwork impression of the urban landscape. Now, as a result of new rendering processes that enable the automatic creation of 3D cityscapes from aerial photography, including detailed models of buildings, monuments and even trees, this hindrance will soon be a thing of the past.

Example of Google Earth for mobile

Another aspect is that Google’s existing coverage will extend to areas not currently reachable by Google Street View vehicles. For the armchair explorers out there, the new Google Street View Trekker will grant virtual tourists unprecedented access to the most obscure parts of the wilderness. It has also announced the introduction of a Tour Guide service, which suggests places of touristic interest as users navigate their way around Google Earth.

Example of Google Earth for mobile

While perhaps a chilling prospect in terms of Google’s increasing monopolisation of the (virtual) world (and apparent determination to remove all wonder and mystery from the lesser-known parts of planet Earth), in a pragmatic sense this could become an indispensable tool for architects, enabling detailed views of every corner of a city in a ‘personal helicopter’-type capacity. This immersive experience will undoubtedly assist architects in gauging a real sense of scale, detail and proximity of site surroundings for current or future projects – particularly those in countries distant from their own – that can be referred back to at the touch of a button.

The timing of Google’s announcement on 6 June is being regarded as a preemptive strike, as Apple is expected to announce at its WWDC conference this week that it will no longer be using Google Maps as its default service, replacing it with its own version in the upcoming iOS 6 software. So while Google seems set to render the term ‘uncharted territory’ obsolete once and for all, the focus will now turn towards Apple in anticipation of its own plans for the future of cartography.

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