Thursday, July 28, 2005

Virtually Google the Earth

Visit Your Ancestors' Homes Without Leaving Yours

Wouldn't it be cool to be able to see the house or at least the town your ancestors lived in before you had to spend real dinero to go there? What if you could "fly" from your home to your great uncle's place across the country to your 3rd great-grandmother's cemetery in England all in a matter of minutes?

Well, now maybe you can, thanks to Google and Microsoft.

Google has released Google Earth, which is described as "a 3D interface to the planet." It combines satellite imagery, mapping, and Google's search capabilities to locate real images of just about any place on Earth. The whole world is represented in medium resolution [15 meters]. Many major metropolitan areas have high resolution [1-2 ft in some cases; 3 meters in others]. For 38 major U.S. cities, there are 3D buildings depicted.

You can use Google Earth just like you would use Google Maps or similar programs such as MapQuest to find directions or locate addresses or businesses. But in addition to the cool imagery, Google Earth lets you actually fly through space from place to place or along a route of directions!

The images, Google says, are taken within the last three years and updated on a rolling basis. I went to a location I know on the West Coast and spotted a feature I know to be less than 90 days old.

How well does it work otherwise? I wanted to visit locales all over the United States and basically had no problem with specific addresses 95% of the time. At one location in the Southeast that I know well, I could not recognize the specific site in the image. Another site in the Midwest I never found, leading me to believe it no longer exists or the address has changed.

Google Earth must be downloaded and won't run well on older systems. It comes in a free version, a "Plus" version for $20, and a "Professional" version for $400. I tested the free version.

A competing product from Microsoft is MSN Virtual Earth. Unlike its Google counterpart, this beta runs on the Web and does not need to be downloaded. Virtual Earth has features like a scratch pad that saves your searches and a "locate me" device that uses your computer's IP address to find your location [many people don't realize that can be done]. Its images are comparable to Google's. But, perhaps because it runs on the Web, I found it a slow, lumbering clod compared to Google. [It doesn't have Google's flight capabilities]. My other gripe is that it's not as easy as I think it should be to find Virtual Earth on the MSN site.

Genealogists can use these tools to locate cities, towns, addresses, churches, cemeteries, homes, and other features. Advanced users can even learn how to visit sites that no longer contain what they did historically. Both brands allow users to e-mail images. Both also let users switch to underlying 2D road maps. Google Earth, however, has easy-to-access layers that allow display of boundaries and roads on the aerial imagery. Virtual Earth has "labeled photos," but as far as I can tell, the options are not as diverse or as user-friendly as Google's.

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