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06-29-2005, 04:54 AM
Google's free 3-D service brings views of Earth down to the PC

Verne Kopytoff, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Fly between San Francisco's skyscrapers, through the Grand Canyon or across the Swiss Alps with Google.

The Internet search engine unveiled a free, three-dimensional satellite mapping technology Tuesday that is part flight simulator, part video game and part world atlas.

Practically speaking, Google Earth, as the technology is called, allows users to get directions and find businesses and share the information with friends. But the ability to zoom in from space to street level and take virtual flyovers inevitably will elicit a chorus of gee-whizzes.

"It's actually pretty cool," said Allen Weiner, an analyst with Gartner Inc., a market research firm. "It's important to have a lot of the gee-whiz factor because it gets people to use it, and then they can get involved in the business portion."

Google Earth comes in tiers ranging from free for the basic version to $400 a year for commercial use. A software download from http://earth.google.com is necessary.

Only Windows-based desktop computers newer than 4 years old are compatible with the software, although Google is working on a Macintosh version. Laptops generally must be no more than 2 years old.

Google got into satellite imagery last year with the acquisition of Keyhole Corp., a digital mapping company. Since then, the merged firms have been working on combining searching with mapping for Tuesday's launch.

Google Earth, with its free basic service, takes satellite mapping to the masses like never before. An earlier version required a subscription except for a seven-day trial period.

"We would like to think we were already reaching a lot of people," John Hanke, Keyhole's general manager said. "But making it free opens it up to a lot more of an audience."

Google Earth features a search box where users can enter queries, such as San Francisco. The technology quickly zooms in from a view of the globe to an aerial image of the city. Users can then manipulate the controls to focus on, for example, the Ferry Building. By tilting the image and clicking on an arrow or two, a user can simulate flying above the city.

The images users see aren't perfect. They don't include some new buildings because they are updated on average every 18 months. In addition, the user can't zoom much closer than the equivalent of a few hundred feet above the ground. At that distance, certain details are hard to see.

Also, buildings tend to go flat when a user rotates the image surface. To make up for that, the service gives users the option of inserting model buildings on the landscape that appear as simple cutouts.

Generally speaking, topography shows up much more realistically than man-made structures. For instance, a trip over the Grand Canyon looks better than a trip down Market Street.

Users can choose to have landmarks identified with text. They can also have a particular kind of business, such as pizza parlors, indicated on the map.

No advertisements appear on Google Earth. However, they eventually may be included, according to Hanke.

Google, in Mountain View, also is leveraging the images by offering a mapping service through which a traveler enters a destination and is transported along the route. Users can also create and share their own annotations.

Google's isn't alone in its interest in aerial imagery. There's a virtual space race among the Internet behemoths.

A project by Microsoft's MSN Web portal uses photographs from both satellite and airplanes. The so-called Virtual Earth is expected to be unveiled in the coming months.

Back on Earth, Amazon's A9 search engine has incorporated street-level photographs into its results.

Separately Tuesday, Google introduced an updated version of its personalized search. The feature, located inside Google's testing ground, Google Labs, personalizes results based on what a user has searched for in the past.

For example, a fisherman who enters the query "bass" would more likely get results about the fish. A music lover who enters the same word would get results about the musical instrument.


web page (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2005/06/29/GOOGLE.TMP&type=tech)