Chances are you already know about
Google Earth ( ): it’s the program that lets you zoom in on almost any spot on the planet, with a remarkable level of detail. But it can do a lot more than simply let you see what your house looks like from space.
Because it’s a Google product, Google Earth is integrated with other Google products and services. One of the coolest things you can do with that integration is build a 3-D model of your own house in SketchUp, Google’s 3-D design tool, and place it in a Google Earth map; you can then share that map with other people via e-mail. Here’s how.
Building a home
If you don’t have a copy of Google Earth yet, you can
download it for free. Once you’ve installed it, go to Google Earth: Preferences: 3D View; then make sure that the Elevation Exaggeration setting is 1, and that the Detail Area setting is Medium or Large.
That done, zoom in on your property by typing your street address into the search field. Zoom in as close as you can; make sure that you have a clear view of your land, and that the view fills the Google Earth window comfortably. Using the attitude-adjustment tool in the upper right corner of the image, adjust the view of your house to be as perfectly vertical as possible.
Now switch to SketchUp. (If you haven’t already, you can download it from sketchup.google.com.) If you didn’t run the basic tutorial that opens when you first launch the program, you should—the program takes some getting used to. The basic idea is that you build 3-D models by stretching and pulling on simple 2-D shapes. Draw a square, for example, then grab its center and pull it up into a cube. Using that technique, you can (with a little practice) build almost any shape.
Assuming you’ve developed some familiarity with SketchUp, open a new model, and then select Tools: Google Earth: Get Current View. SketchUp will import a black-and-white copy of what Google Earth is currently displaying. This black-and-white image will serve as the template for the model of your home.
Use the Line or Rectangle tool to draw an outline that matches the outline of your house on the ground. You can then use the Push/Pull tool to drag the outline upward, turning it into a 3-D box. From there, you can subtract and expand the surfaces of your rough model until it conforms to the contours of your house.
The more you work with SketchUp’s tools, the faster all this will get. (If you experience odd on-screen artifacts as you draw, go to Preferences: Open GL and turn off the Use Hardware Acceleration option.) Once your outline is done, you can add details, exteriors, textures, and materials. If you find yourself struggling to get your model right (or you just don’t have time), try downloading a ready-made design from the Google
3D Warehouse. There, you’ll find everything from simple homes to elaborate skyscrapers. You can then edit that model to your liking.
You are here
When you’re happy with your model, it’s time to place it on a map. In SketchUp, select Tools: Google Earth: Place Model. You should be automatically switched to Google Earth, which should be displaying your model in the right place. If the model is oriented the wrong way, return to SketchUp and use the Rotate tool to get it facing the right direction; again, you can use the original image you imported from Google Earth as your guide.
Once your model has been imported into Google Earth, you should see it listed in the Places section of the sidebar, in the Temporary Places subcategory. Right-click on its name to make changes. In particular, the Get Info option will summon a dialog box where you can edit the model’s name and description; Save To My Places moves the model from the Temporary Places subcategory to your permanent Places list, so you can easily return to it another time.
Your model now exists in two places: The original 3-D model is in SketchUp, and the newly placed copy of it is in Google Earth. You can export and share either one.
To export the model from SketchUp, choose File: Export: 3D Model. This will generate a .kmz file that’s compatible with Google Earth; you can send this file to whomever you wish. As long as recipients have Google Earth, they’ll be able to double-click on the .kmz file to launch Google Earth and zoom right in on your model, correctly placed on a map. To export the model from Google Earth, select File: Save: Save Place As, and then save it as a .kmz file.
Another cool way to share models is via the Google Earth Community Layer. There’s a thriving online community of 3-D-model builders who add their digital constructions to Google’s database. Models shared here will appear automatically for all Google Earth users who enable this layer. To add one of your models (say, of a public landmark or another notable building), right-click (or control-click) on it in the Places panel and select Share/Post. This will open a posting wizard in your browser. Be sure to read the terms and conditions, and always use the search function first to make sure you’re not duplicating a model someone else has already made.
Make a 3-D Model: Using SketchUp’s Push/Pull tool, you turn a 2-D rectangle into a 3-D structure.
Save Your Model on a Map: Once you’ve placed your SketchUp model in Google Earth, you can save it for later viewing in your Places list.
More fun with Google Earth
Google Earth was designed to accept data from third parties, which means that lots of ingenious developers have been building their own Google Earth-linked add-ons. These are among my favorites:
Earth Addresser, a clever tool by
earthlingsoft (free), looks up all of the addresses in your Address Book, figures out where they should appear on Google Earth, and then spits out a .kmz file that you can share with others. The developers acknowledge that you might want to consider the privacy issues of using Earth Addresser, since it involves sending all (or some) of your contacts’ details off to Google, unencrypted.
Live Global Clouds is a very cool Google Earth add-on that displays nearly real-time weather data (it’s delayed by a few hours). Just download it, select File: Open, and choose that file; this should add it to your Places list.
You can view selections from the
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection as overlays within Google Earth. In the View section of the sidebar, select All Layers from the drop-down menu. Next, open the Featured Content subsection; then open the Rumsey Historical Maps section within that. Select a map from the list. You don’t get the same detail that modern satellite imaging brings, but it’s fascinating to step back in time and see how your hometown once looked. If you have time, you should poke around in the Featured Content layer; there’s plenty of fascinating stuff in there.
[ Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer based in England and a frequent contributor to O’Reilly Media’s