Google wows map geeks at Where 2.0

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Tuesday I fled from unseasonably foggy San Francisco and headed south to the warmer climes of San Jose, to attend O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 conference, which covers “the future of mapping and local search.”

On Monday Google released the latest version of Google Earth and SketchUp, and so attendees were anxious to hear from the search giant.

John Hanke of Google was here to show off some of the latest features in Google Earth. At last year’s conference, Google showed off Google Earth and said that Mac users would have to wait. This year, Hanke said that he’d recently switched back to using a Mac, and that Google Earth “screams” on a MacBook.

As a geek and someone who loves maps (my bathroom is plastered in three maps of different continents), I love seeing the new features in programs that push the limits of digital mapping, and Google is at the forefront of this movement.

Hanke showed off some of Google Earth’s main new features, which include updated satellite data and much more detail for places in the world that didn’t have close-up information before. He said that Google Earth now covers 20 percent of the surface of the Earth, covering a third of the population of the world.

Some areas that Hanke mentioned specifically that had improved were the entire Baja California peninsula, the Nile River basin, and others. High-resolution data makes each of the images significantly richer, in many instances down to the sub-meter resolution level.

One great thing about Google Earth is that Google has been able to create a powerful platform that’s generating its own ecosystem. Many of the killer applications of Google Earth, including mash-ups and other hacks, have been created by ordinary users. Hanke pointed out that one of his favorite applications of Google Earth is by the famed anthropologist, Jane Goodall, who is using the program in an upcoming briefing with the President of Tanzania to explain how certain primate habitats are in danger.

Presenting alongside Hanke was Brad Schell, the founder of AtLast — the company that created the 3-D modeling program SketchUp, which was acquired by Google in March 2006.

Schell demonstrated how SketchUp can integrate with Google Earth to create 3-D representations of structures within the mapping program. Over the course of a 10 minute presentation, Schell sketched out a building in downtown San Francisco, imported a photograph of the building’s façade, and then added height to his initial floor plan. By the end of the presentation, he had created a 3-D model of the building, along with an addition that included particular types of windows, a revolving door and an archway.

By the end of the presentation, I was wowed with the sheer ability and simplicity of Google Earth and SketchUp. The map geek in me was in three-dimensional heaven. There’s no question what my next step will be: I’m downloading SketchUp and building a 3-D model of my house.

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