On a Clear Day, I Can See Mumbai but Not Dick Cheney's House
December 19, 2008 12:13 AM   Subscribe

What a month for Google Earth. Its breathtaking updated 3D New York City skyline features textured photos of hundreds of buildings. It has doubled its US coverage and expanded Street View imagery by 22 times. But it also became the subject of a failed legal petition in India demanding it blur sensitive areas in the country. Supposedly, it had agreed to do this nearly two years before the Mumbai attack. Despite the bad timing, an Indian rival plans to sharpen the competition. Google Maps and Earth allegedly blur sensitive sites and a few questionably sensitive landmarks. However, as yet undeterred by security and privacy controversy, Google is adding GeoEye's satellite imagery to Google Earth next month.
posted by terranova (27 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
i had to turn on the 3D buildings>Photorealistic checkbox- that new york view is amazing. i can even see the curtains on my 6th floor apartment windows. glad i now have curtains!
posted by bhnyc at 12:50 AM on December 19, 2008

Say what you like about Google Earth, it is one of those rare pieces of software that changes how you see the world. Yes, I know that it was once called Keyhole. But once acquired by Google and more importantly incorporated into its new owner's vision of mapping the world and all of its information, it has emerged has a truly remarkable program. When the history of the 21st Century is written I really think that Google Earth will have a very special section. And to do what it does for no cost to the average end-user, it is staggering. Utterly amazing.
posted by vac2003 at 1:13 AM on December 19, 2008

Looks pretty strange as it loads. Are they using some kind of lossy compression on the building models?
posted by delmoi at 1:32 AM on December 19, 2008

The bird's eye view mode in Microsoft's Live Maps is way better than Google's aerial images.
posted by cillit bang at 2:44 AM on December 19, 2008

I am amazed that Google has complete Street View coverage of my hometown. I mean, Alabama isn't exactly a happenin' place, and Tuscaloosa isn't even the biggest city in the state (5th biggest, to be precise). We're never included in stuff like this.

And yet it is clear that Google set a fleet of Street View vans down every last street, boulevard, and service road in the county. Including the rural boondocks outside of town. In fact, zooming out, I see they've covered most of the state. In further fact, zooming out even more, I see they've covered most of the nation. Hell, they even have parts of Europe, Australia, and Japan done. (I bet the streets of Rome and Paris were a pain in the ass...)

Now that I think of it, the size of the Street View imagery database must be absolutely staggering. I was playing around with the camera, trying to retrace my route from my place to my morning classes, and eventually gave up and skipped ahead a ways because the click-by-click advancement was glacial. But think about that... each stretch of road, each block, has maybe ten to twenty 360-degree images. Multiply that by the hundreds of roads that spiderweb across the average city. Then multiply that by the thousands of communities that Google has already covered.

Simply amazing.

Also, I got a kick out of the Register calling Street View (which is currently mapping the UK) "Orwellian". This coming from a newspaper in the CCTV capital of the world...
posted by Rhaomi at 2:56 AM on December 19, 2008

I always wondered why they didn't just buy these guys -- they can apparently generate a decent 3D model (including trees and such) automatically from aerial photos.
posted by you at 3:57 AM on December 19, 2008

allegedly blur sensitive sites

If you visit the sites in question, you can see they are not blurry in real life.
posted by DU at 4:23 AM on December 19, 2008 [6 favorites]

I visited but forgot to take my glasses.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:18 AM on December 19, 2008

Google Street View's coverage of Australia is surprisingly comprehensive; they don't have every small town done, though their trucks trundled along a lot of outback highways, taking photos along the way. For a country with vast stretches of not all that much, it's surprising.

Europe, in contrast, is still quite patchy. There are a few roads in France, and little else. The UK, for one, is not yet online.
posted by acb at 5:20 AM on December 19, 2008

I'm fairly sure the Register article is written with tongue firmly in cheek. They're not usually shrill nutcases. (Well, maybe when Andrew Orlowski is writing for them...)
posted by acb at 5:23 AM on December 19, 2008

I know it's not Google, but I've been very impressed by the coverage of Microsoft's "birds eye view" on maps.live.com. I think it works a lot better for visualizing the area than either street view or the overhead view, especially in suburban areas. It's like SimCity.
posted by smackfu at 6:56 AM on December 19, 2008

Well, they've finally got coverage for my hometown out in the sticks of Maine, but it was weird- they would go blur out things like "DEAD END" signs, or a sign outside a restaurant in Bar Harbor.
Also, although they just rolled out coverage for Maine, the pictures are all from 2007. You can still see all the steering fluid the police department was calling my parents about.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:14 AM on December 19, 2008

(leaking from my poor dying car)
posted by dunkadunc at 7:15 AM on December 19, 2008

To second and third the sentiment, I'm squarely in the Google fanboy camp but I have to say Microsoft's bird's eye view of northern NJ and NYC is just amazing. If haven't seen it, you gotta check it out. The coolest thing is that they have multiple angles, and you can pick the best one.
posted by exhilaration at 7:49 AM on December 19, 2008

I can see my house my cat from here.
posted by rokusan at 8:37 AM on December 19, 2008

The bird's eye view mode in Microsoft's Live Maps is way better than Google's aerial images.

This is true. Although last time I checked it wasn't available as many places as high-quality Google aerial images. And I think the interface kinda sucks.
posted by grouse at 8:50 AM on December 19, 2008

New Zealand is well covered by Street View. My dad looked at his house and noticed that his car wasn't there and wondered where they were since he and my mum don't go out much these days. Then my brother checked is place of work and, what do you know ..., there he is standing outside talking to mum and dad in their car. :)
posted by tetranz at 9:45 AM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Europe, in contrast, is still quite patchy. There are a few roads in France, and little else. The UK, for one, is not yet online.

This is very true. The Google versions of maps for Sweden, for example, are quite terrible. Maybe because there are home-grown versions of this type of data in Europe? In Sweden there is Eniro.se, which has many of the same features as Google Maps. Their coverage of my hometown is pretty impressive, with flyover views available from different angles.
posted by gemmy at 9:45 AM on December 19, 2008

Working in the Civil Engineering industry, Google Street View and satellite maps in general have completely changed the game. It's amazing to watch both tech savvy kids,old timers, and even ditch digging contractors embrace such a useful tool. Thank you, Google.
posted by vaportrail at 10:38 AM on December 19, 2008

Well, to be fair Google Earth > Local Live, because the latter is web-only. Comparing Google Maps straight up with Local Live, Local Live wins by a landslide (in my opinion) because it has as good an imagery as well as the bird's eye view data, and a better interface (the ability to directly link not only the exact location and view but tagged data/searches is fantastic and has been around for some time). Google Maps was way behind on the hybrid views and until they finally integrated the street view data into the web maps were just paltry by comparison.

Remember, Microsoft was 7-8 years ahead of Google with the whole "map the earth" technology, but people conveniently forget that. What I'm seeing between Local Live, Seadragon (even on the iPhone), and Photosynth suggests that Microsoft could if sufficiently motivated put out a true Microsoft Earth application that would be as good or better than Google Earth.

The day that you can load up "Live Earth" and zoom in seamlessly (using Seadragon, which has a smoother zoom in/out than Local Live/Google Earth) and then get automatically tagged and generated 3-D views out of flickr, etc shared photos of any city or street in the world (using Photosynth) is the day Google Earth looks almost steampunk-quaint by comparison.
posted by hincandenza at 11:09 AM on December 19, 2008

As an aside, does anyone have an idea of how much data is involved with these products? Just the aerial views alone, not considering the redundancy necessary to scale to volume requests, must be huge (on the orders of 10's of TB), along with those 1ft resolution city scans, bird's eye images, street views, topographical data, map data and names, etc.

The total data must be in the petabytes of storage, easily. Even at cheap disk costs these days, it would take tens of thousands of machines with ~1TB of disk space each to provide the kind of mapping storage involved, not to mention the web, caching, etc layers.
posted by hincandenza at 11:13 AM on December 19, 2008

The bird's eye view mode in Microsoft's Live Maps is way better than Google's aerial images.

Yeah, but it says my browser isn't supported. However, if you see a guy in a white corolla with a roof rack flipping off the camera at 6th and 110th in Bellevue, WA, that'd be me. The woman in the passenger seat rolling her eyes is my wife.
posted by stet at 12:04 PM on December 19, 2008

As an aside, does anyone have an idea of how much data is involved with these products?

I remember pitching a DVD version of 3-D maps when I worked for Rand McNally and nearly being laughed out of the room (this was back in 2000). Back then, the dataset was miniscule compared to whats available now but still far larger than I had anticipated. When we did vectored maps for the Palm Pilot (back then the Palm V, Palm III were the vogue), the level of detail on a simple city map required a 2-5MB pdb file. Pretty huge for back then.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 12:30 PM on December 19, 2008

hincandeza: Well, quick back of the envelope calculations indicate that if you want the whole land surface of the earth at 30cm resolution, in 24 bit RGB the uncompressed data would be about 4500 Terabytes.

Of course, at 1 meter resolution, it's about one tenth of that. Assume that 90% of the maps are at most 1 meter resolution, while the rest is 30cm (this is probably grossly overestimating the resolution of Google Maps, or anything else for that matter), and that's 900 terabytes.

Quite a bit, but by no means impossible to manage for a company like Google. You can get a 10TB RAID today for less than 5000 dollars, after all.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:38 PM on December 19, 2008

Bird-eye view is money, but for true awesomeness, check out Virtual Earth 3D, which now shows near real-time weather in addition to realistically rendered 3D objects. This is so good that we've had interest from some local governments in using the technology for their internal purposes; we had the distinct impression that their individual cartographic departments are about to go obselete (or at least, will shift to a more focussed approach; so they don't waste time on, say, roads, but look at land-usage and stuff instead).

In general, I'm quite excited about spatial data as a whole; last March, we accurately re-traced the path of an abandoned railway line using a combination of Virtual Earth and Google Maps (and some GPS). We had been trying this every year since 2002; it was only this year that the imagery became good enough for us to "predict" exactly where the tracks went through the dense equitorial foilage.
posted by the cydonian at 6:54 PM on December 19, 2008

Assume that 90% of the maps are at most 1 meter resolution, while the rest is 30cm (this is probably grossly overestimating the resolution of Google Maps, or anything else for that matter), and that's 900 terabytes.

Just you wait.

These maps are transient. Changing. New roads get built, old buildings get torn down... after fifty or one hundred years, you wouldn't even recognize most major cities. In the developing world, even more so. Whole cities can rise from fields in under a decade. Just imagine, not only exabytes of current map data, but historical map data as well.

Imagine a little slider control on the side of your screen next to the ZOOM button. It's labeled YEAR.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:49 AM on December 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

The one thing I miss in the birds-eye view is that you can't zoom out. There's only the default level and zoomed in from that. It makes navigating a bit painful.
posted by smackfu at 10:36 AM on December 20, 2008

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