Monday, February 14, 2011

Photo tour: Google Earth 6 on a super-fast computer.

I've been putting this off, because I knew what a pain in the ass it was going to be to upload all these giant screenshots, but it's something I've been meaning to share for awhile -- that back in December when I first got my brand-new high-end screaming fast quad-core 27-inch i-Fucking-Mac, one of the first things I tried was Google Earth, which had just released version 6 of their application a few days before. I was very excited about this, in fact, because this was the first time I had ever owned a computer with the kind of graphics processing power needed for an optimal experience on a piece of software like this; and since I've never really been into first-person-shooter videogames, this is one of the only times in my life that I have a chance to interact with a persistent 3D CG-rendered environment.

As you can see, the big news about version 6 is that Google is now starting to insert millions and millions of trees into their database of 3D information about certain cities, that show up whenever you have the "Buildings" layer on and that purport to not just randomly fill spaces with greenery, but actually reflect the type and density of real foliage found there. And since Chicago has always been one of Google Earth's top-ten core testing cities (meaning that we get stuff implemented faster and bigger than many others), it means the city even right now has something like three million trees to go with what I think is somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 buildings? I think I read a number that was something like that somewhere. As you can see, then, when you combine this with a customized Google map, like the ones I do all the time for city bicyclists (, it produces just this stunning experience, for example like my map above of southern Lincoln Park.

And then to show off another good example, here's the Chicago Loop, one of the most skyscraper-dense areas on the planet, which I'm sure is one of the big reasons Google picked us as a testing city, so to have something really impressive-looking early on; and impressive-looking this is, when combining the thousands of buildings now with the smattering of greenery around the downtown district's various historic boulevards and parks.

It's while zooming around the Loop in my invisible little helicopter, in fact, that I most start thinking along the lines of, "My God, we really are on the verge soon of having an entire Second-Life-style real-scale explorable environment that literally recreates the planet Earth." I mean, just look at that image above, and realize that even now with our home equipment, you're able to tilt and pan and roam about in that environment in a fully real-time basis; it doesn't take much to extrapolate that into a day where all those buildings actually have explorable floors, and rooms within those floors that are decorated with furniture you can actually sit on. I'm astounded that we're as far along as we are in the first place just here in 2011, so have stopped taking guesses at when I might be able to start "walking" around this rendering with my tattoo-covered avatar. Could you even imagine if something like this was an alternate user interface for Facebook, where all your friends lived at unique points in that maze below and chat rooms were literal pubs where you all meet up? Google Metaverse, here we come!

And then to show off yet another great example, here's my bike map of the Prairie Avenue historic district, just south of the Loop, a whole six-by-ten-block area full of stuff worth visiting, which is why the whole zone is simply shaded in my map instead of a specific linear route drawn. Combine a rendering of the area like this with a good, detailed map, and you have the next best thing to a walking tour of that neighborhood you're ever going to have; and let me tell you, I'd almost be willing to pay money to get ahold of maps like this for various sections around London. If I've never mentioned this before, one of my bike maps has been featured before by Google on their Customized Maps front page, and has since gotten over 100,000 views in just a few years, so there are PLENTY of opportunities within a new technology like this to do something fun and hobbyist yet that a WHOLE lot of people get a kick out of visiting.

Once you get up to the edge of where Google's current database of 3D data cuts off -- which right now is around Wrigley Field, close to my place -- even though the tree data has long cut out by now, the amount of photo-realistic 3D buildings is still mighty impressive, giving you these sometimes breathtakingly realistic vistas when looking back towards the Loop. But in that bottom photo, though, you can see that by the time you do get up to my building -- about a half-mile farther north, near Irving Park Road and Sheridan -- the illusion of a persistent 3D environment starts breaking down heavily. Still, like I said before, I'm impressed that in 2011 Google has already managed to put together something like this, and especially can't believe that they've gathered up now so many real-life photos of the sides and roofs of all these buildings.

Google's getting pretty good at getting this 3D info collected and outputted to a growing number of American cities; that image above is of downtown St. Louis, filled in pretty nicely I think in comparison to what's actually there. But frankly, anything outside of major, popular cities still scarcely exists at this point; in that bottom photo, for example, you see that when you visit the sleepy St. Louis suburb of St. Charles where I grew up, there is literally only one 3D building to be found in the entire metropolitan area, which I just bet is only there in the first place because some enterprising entrepreneur convinced this cheap hotel chain to pay him $10,000 or whatever to do every single hotel in their system in Google Earth versions. Google makes it very easy to do this, by the way, providing not only a full-fledged powerful CAD/CAM standalone application called SketchUp, but also the grossly simplified Google Building Maker, specifically for making in just a few steps the kind of boxy, easy-to-render buildings that make up most commercial spaces and the like. (Just getting okay on the app should let you kick out a hotel like the above in a single afternoon, while pros can churn out four or five such buildings every eight-hour shift.) Google is then highly encouraging people to do 3D renderings of their own rural environments, part of their master plan to get all this info into their main database as quickly as possible; there are plenty of cases now, for example, of small-town chamber-of-commerces hiring some local college student to do their entire downtown districts in 3D, or high-school design classes taking it on as a semester-long challenge. This is extremely smart of Google, I think, and again makes me wonder just how soon it'll be before all that info actually has been filled in, and you can go to literally any podunk city in the nation and have a fully immersive 3D experience.

Anyway, I could go on all day like this, but I think I'll stop for here. How wonderful to have this computer that can render all this with so few problems! Ah, what a glorious future world we live in! EXCELSIOR!

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