Thursday, June 7, 2012

The future of Google Earth

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 06: Brian McClendon, ...
When I was at the Google Teacher Academy a little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to ask one of managers what Google Earth would look like in five years.  I have a vested interest in the product, not only because relies so heavily on it, but also because I model 3D buildings for it.  They passed on the question at the time, but after listening to Brian McClendon's press event for Google Maps today, it would seem as though I have my answer.

The VP of Google Maps outlined the progression of Google Earth and Maps throughout the 7 year history of their development.  He said that Google's mapping applications have been built around the principles of comprehensiveness, accuracy, and usablity.  No doubt, Google has gathered the most comprehensive geo-data in the world.  It's quite astonishing when you see how far Google's mapping efforts have come in a relatively short time when you consider the subject matter is the world.  In 2006, 37% of Google Earth was covered in high resolution imagery.  McClendon states the number today as 75%.  In 2008 Google had mapped 13 million navigable miles in 22 countries.  By 2012, the number had increased to 26 million miles in 187 countries.  This increase comes in large part from the contributions of users from around the world.  Additionally, 5 million miles have been gathered for the Street View.  Street View has always seemed to me to be a sign that Google was not going to rely on user-supplied content forever.

This makes sense and provides one of the clues as to why Google sold SketchUp earlier in the year.  It's also a bitter pill to swallow for me personally.  I am one of the thousands of people who uses SketchUp to model 3D buildings.  I would like to think that the 53 models I've done for Google Earth are of the highest quality; but, I'll admit that some are much better than others.  The disparity is even greater when you compare the work of the master modelers with the novices, and when you consider that not all models are geometrically efficient.  If Google wants a product that is consistent and accurate, then it isn't in their best interest to rely on the work of hobbyists.  [Ouch, that hurt to write.]  And so, it would seem now that the geo-technology has once again reached a breakthrough moment.

Peter Birch, Product Manager for Google Earth, skirted around these points, although SketchUp was never mentioned by name in the entire presentation.  He shared a demonstration of Google's new textured 3-D mesh rendering.  We saw an early version of this "automated technology to extract 3-D from aerial images" in Google's Building Maker.  I wasn't a fan of this modeling technique at the time because, although it was easy to model with, the results were no substitute for buildings modeled with SketchUp.   But Google's current version provides the solution that is comprehensive, consistent, and accurate.  It uses a much greater amount of data called "oblique imagery" that is collected by planes.  The photo imagery of a city is gathered from all angles in a series of gridded flight patterns.  Next "stereo photogrammetry" constructs the 3D models out of a textured 3D mesh from the images.  It was an impressive demonstration and showed just how far Google has come since Building Maker.  Now Google can create a 3D city that is complete without the gaps of missing buildings, has a consistent textured appearance, and it will be deliverable across all devices.

This is just the beginning.  Google has only mapped a dozen or more cities around the world with this technique but as they so obviously demonstrated - there doesn't seem to be a limit to the growth they can accomplish in a matter of years.  When SketchUp was sold, I had a feeling my modeling would become obsolete.  It remains to be seen what extent this will come to fruition, but I anticipate I'll be reduced to the 21st century equivalent of modeling a ship in a bottle.  It makes me sad and a bit angry when I think of the hours that so many users contributed to help create much of Geo Google's value without any thought of compensation.  At the same time I am envious of Google's ingenuity and the prospect of the future.  Indoor maps for subway stations, hiking trail maps, and a greater amount of interactive tours are on the near horizon.  I suppose the lesson learned is- if you're going to embrace technology, then it doesn't make sense to stand in the way of progress.

You can see the full press conference below.  The stereo photogrammetry is covered at 37:40

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