It was big news this week that Google Earth 6.2 was released with a bunch of new pictures, and an improved satellite mesh that removed some of the previous patchwork of scans that made up some of its maps.
The media are full of articles praising Google Earth’s new release. CNET noted, “The result is a more realistic and less distracting (though still optimistically cloudless) view of the planet. Update: It turns out that by turning on the weather layer, you can dispel Google Earth’s sunny optimism and see if it’s really cloudy by showing live weather data.”
As much as I like Google Earth, and as much as I enjoy my virtual explorations of the world using it, it’s still less-than-impressive for local use (or in fact for most of the world outside the USA). First of all is the annoying cloud over our downtown that obscures the view of our beautiful main street. It’s not part of Google Earth’s live weather display. The original satellite image has a cloud. I don’t know if there have been later passes without a cloud, but I’d really like to see my home town unblemished. It has not been changed in several years, however.
Second is the grainy, mid-to-low-res of the overhead views. Some of the satellite images in Google Earth are pin-sharp. Look at the views of New York City, for example. But Collingwood is in the lower range that’s at the verge of interesting but not quite detailled enough to be really useful. It’s not too bad when you want a sprawling overview of the while town, but when you want to zoom in for a closer look at neighbourhoods, you get the image on the left: coarse and ugly. Again this may not be Google’s fault, but surely more accurate, higher-res images are available.
There are consistency issues, too. Take a look at this street-level image of downtown. Nice sunny day, trees in bloom. Cloudless sky (certainly not the same day as the satellite photo, which has leafless trees and that annoying cloud). Then move a few feet (or metres) north from that spot and what do you see?
Hmmm. The sky is suddenly cloudy. And the trees are different. We can’t see the new sidewalk and downtown design we’ve had the last two years, and it’s very evidently a different day. So many changes in the last two years, none recorded here. Google Earth is not very up-to-date for Collingwood: it’s showing our history, not our present. You can do the virtual drive through the downtown and see the same sort of abrupt changes from cloudy-to-sunny and back at almost every block.
I’m sure there are many enhancements to this version of Google Earth worth crowing about. But the things that matter most to me – the accuracy and clarity in my hometown – are not among them. I also note the detailled 3D buildings visible in so many cities are not visible in Collingwood. I’m not sure if that’s because no one local has created models or entered any requisite data, or if it’s an oversight in Google Earth itself. But look at Toronto with its 3D buildings and you can see the difference.
You can see the difference in quality of images here in this capture of a neighbourhood in San Francisco, California. nice crisp view, lots of detail, and can be zoomed almost to street level with no loss of clarity. That’s the sort of image I want for Collingwood.
Here’s the same scene, zoomed right down to ground level, but not in Google Earth’s street view perspective. See the difference 3D buildings can make in the landscape at this level? While not perfect it conveys at least some sense of proportion and depth. That kind of view would have helped us understand the visual impact of the proposed Admiral Collingwood development. But for that, and for many areas served only by lower-res, coarse images, Google Earth remains an entertaining but less-than functional tool.
It’s still a work in progress and despite improvements, Google Earth has a long way to go before it serves us here as well as it does in the USA. I’ll rate it a B for effort, but still a C overall. I may have to save my praises for version 6.5 or even 7.