The latest version of Google's geospatial mapping app lets users dive beneath the seas, explore the effects of climate change, and view high-resolution NASA images of Mars.
The stars came out Monday morning at San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences to reveal Google Earth 5.0 beta, the latest version of Google's geospatial mapping application.
Al Gore and Google CEO Eric Schmidt discuss Google Earth 5.0 beta. (click for larger image)
Addressing a capacity audience in one of the museum's auditoriums, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and popular recording artist Jimmy Buffett took turns describing Google's new world. They were joined by scientific luminaries like oceanographer Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
Google Earth 5.0 includes several significant new features. The biggest change is that Google's globe now includes the world's oceans, an addition prompted in part by Earle's suggestion several years ago that Google rename its then soil-centric geo-application Google Dirt.
Ocean in Google Earth allows users to navigate beneath the waves, view videos of ocean life, and see data layers that reveal information about how oceans function.
"When you think about Google Earth, you're missing the majority of Earth, which is the oceans," said Schmidt.
For Schmidt and the rest of the morning's speakers, the revamped Google Earth isn't just about correcting the omission of water, upon which all life depends. It's about enabling more-informed communication about the planet and climate change. "It's not just a fun demo, it's not just a narrative …" said Schmidt. "What it really is, is a platform for science and research and literally understanding the future of the world."
Gore lauded Google Earth as an organizational metaphor. Just as the desktop metaphor has informed how we interact with computers through a graphic interface, Gore sees Google Earth informing our relationship with our planet.
One way that he sees this happening is through Google Earth 5.0's newfound ability to view satellite imagery over time.
Gore said that when he first started to talk about the Earth's changing climate, it was a painstaking process to gather images that showed the disappearance of glaciers over time. Using Google Earth 5.0's Historical Imagery feature, he said, "you can do that in a much more compelling way."
Earle urged the audience to use Google Earth to become more aware of how environmental concerns require healthy oceans. "Without the blue, there couldn't be any green," she said.
Another new Google Earth 5.0 feature called Touring allows users to record and share narrated fly-through tours of Google Earth using imagery from the application. Google's goal is "to enable people to tell stories and share them," said John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps. Google Earth 5.0 also adds the ability to upload GPS tracking data from GPS devices.
Finally, Google Earth 5.0 adds high-resolution images from Mars. By selecting "Mars" from the toolbar in Google Earth, users have access to what amounts to Google Mars Street View -- a way to tour the portions of the Martian surface mapped by NASA's rovers.
Google Earth's role as a catalyst for social change and political action isn't new. The application already has played an important part helping people understand the extent of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Cyclone Nargis and the Sichuan earthquake last year. And it continues to be used to focus attention on human rights problems in places like Darfur.
And that's a role Google hopes will continue. Hanke, quoting media scholar Marshall McLuhan, put it thus: "First we shape our tools, then our tools shape us."
Google Earth is available in 41 languages and has been downloaded more than 500 million times since its launch in June 2005.
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