Review: Google Earth powerful, but tricky

May 1, 2008 12:15:43 PM PDT
Online photo albums I had prepared for family and friends weren't capturing the essence of my travels to the southern reaches of the world. Then a light bulb clicked as I was exploring Google Earth: Why not use that? Google Earth is a mapping product much more powerful than the typical Web-based map service. Applying mathematical algorithms to actual satellite and aerial images, with help from topographical data collected from the space shuttle, the free software lets you explore the world from your computer with remarkable realism.

Much of the magic comes from regular users: You can broadly share your expertise on specific locales by adding comments, embedding photos and distributing them to the world.

I couldn't wait to contribute my own majestic views of glaciers, forests and the Beagle Channel - shot during an 18-day trip to Antarctica and South America, the third and fourth continents in my ongoing quest to run a marathon on all seven.

Figuring out how to use Google Earth proved challenging, though, and figuring out how to share my collection with friends was even trickier.

I quickly got overwhelmed because the software can do so much, and I couldn't see where or how to begin. Google Inc.'s online user guide provided so much information that I got impatient with it. Relief finally came once I found step-by-step directions on an online bulletin board.

I began by finding Ushuaia and my hotel on the map, adding what Google calls a "placemark" - which I discovered to be a three-dimensional bookmark that remembers the location, altitude and angle from which you are viewing.

I added several placemarks along the route of the 2007 Fin del Mundo Marathon, a task that proved difficult because nearly half the race was through a national park that appeared primarily as a large green spot on the satellite image.

I had to approximate the route using landmarks such as streams and mountains in the photos. I spent too much time trying to find - without success - the waterfront Kuar restaurant I had passed while running and dined at two nights earlier. (If you can find it, order the seafood crepe.)

Had I brought along a GPS device and "geotagged" my photos with latitude and longitude coordinates, a technique still mostly limited to the tech-savvy and professional photographers, this wouldn't have been an issue.

About 12 miles into the race, I had stopped briefly to take a photo of houses with snow-covered mountains in the background. Initially, I added a simple placemark as if the location were viewed from above - like what you typically see on Web-based maps.

But then I sought to match what was on the screen with what I had in my photo. That meant tilting and rotating the Google Earth view until I was looking north from nearly ground level. The match wasn't perfect, but quite impressive.

I quickly came to appreciate the power and realism of Google Earth.

Next I tried to embed photos in the pop-up balloons attached to each placemark, but this requires a rudimentary knowledge of HTML, the Web programming language. I had to search other Web sites for the syntax I needed to embed images hosted on an outside photo-sharing site, and I had to find the proper tags for injecting line breaks for captions.

Once I had my collection close to my liking, I proceeded to share it - e-mailing my placemarks, photo links and other data in a "KML" file to a handful of friends and colleagues.

Those with Google Earth already installed could open it fine. Others couldn't easily figure out that the file also opens in the Web-based Google Maps service, though without all the 3-D goodies.

I purposely gave few instructions to test how easily others discover features, then checked with them for feedback.

No one noticed the "touring" capability - my favorite part of viewing the completed project. It lets you automate a presentation; the map zooms in and out and moves from one placemark to the next as if you are watching a movie of the race recorded from a helicopter.

When I was ready for Round Two, I added photos from each of the seven marathons I did last year - from Antarctica to the Arctic.

This time, I shared my collection through a public bulletin board. It could take weeks or months for my items to automatically appear when users enable the "Google Earth Community" layer in the software, but people can manually find and download my file directly from the forum. My post received more than 60 views in less than a day - woo-hoo!

With time, I can see adding more data points, such as the more than 30 state capitals I've visited, all the homes I've ever lived in and all the restaurants I've enjoyed, perhaps with links to recipes or photos of my favorite dishes. I'm not expecting anyone else to care about all those minutia of my personal life, but perhaps someone, somewhere out there would find some iota of the information useful.

That said, it'll probably be a while before I get around to continuing the task.

I am fairly comfortable with the basics of Google Earth now, and I do enjoy creating the presentations. But it's like the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it: Sharing my Google Earth creation was far more cumbersome than sending a link to an online photo album with an easy-to-find "slideshow" button.

Although many of Google Earth's features are likely second nature to longtime users, they are relatively new to me and people I know. Google says it is working to improve usability, and I look forward to seeing future iterations.

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On the Net:

Google Earth: http://earth.google.com

Step-by-step basics:

http://bbs.keyhole.com/ubb/showflat.php/Cat/0/Number/16256/an/0/page /0

Gallery of KML files:http://earth.google.com/gallery

Seven marathons: http://tinyurl.com/3s26mj

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