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Pick anywhere, and Google Earth will deliver it

Some have raised security concerns about the program, which displays worldwide images, but the most common reaction is awe.

By MATT NELSON
Published October 10, 2005


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[Photos: Google]
Google Earth is a free program that brings high-resolution satellite imagery to the mass market. Shown here is Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

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The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

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Pyramids in Egypt.

In this virtual world, you ride shotgun on a satellite.

The continents are green as grass, the oceans evening blue, the poles stark white. Punch in an address and the thrill ride begins.

It's a struggle, even dizzying, trying to follow with eyes. Land masses pass. Was that Paris? A sea is crossed and then . . . a free fall. The picture blurs, then comes into focus, one, two, three seconds and, whoa, it's the street where you lived. You're still about 1,000 feet up, but it's definitely the same street.

Hey, that's the ball field where you played Little League. And that's your grade school where Ms. Lampley scolded you for running in the halls.

This is Google Earth, a free program that with a mouse click transports users from space to their front lawn.

Two weeks after the Internet program's launch in July, local computer consultant Dave "Doc" Dockery said he had demonstrated Earth to more than 300 people.

"Audiences love to watch," he said. "All I can say is that it bowls them over."

Dockery, who is president of the Tampa Bay Computer Society, said he asks his audience of mostly seniors for addresses while displaying Earth on a giant projection screen. The scrolling landscape brings squeals of delight.

"Earth distinguishes itself by being able to superimpose satellite images (on top of landmarks), and by permitting you to fly over the landscape. The latter is really a gee-whiz feature that never fails to impress an audience," Dockery said, while adding a cautionary tale. "You have to be careful. . . . I had someone get motion sickness in one audience and I had to stop it."

According to Google.com, the world's most popular Internet search site, "Google Earth utilizes broadband streaming technology and 3-D graphics, muchlike a video game, enabling users to interactively explore the world - either their own neighborhood or the far corners of the globe." Last month, Google Earth provided images of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, allowing displaced residents and family to see neighborhood flood damage. Quick links also take the traveler to the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower and Red Square.

Google Earth is an offshoot of Google Maps, a free directions service. Users can input coordinates or search for specific places and addresses. "Earth" is available only for IBM-compatible computers. A GPS version, which shows your location in real time, costs $20 a month.

Competing Microsoft product Virtual Earth (http://virtualearth.msn.com) uses many of the same images as Google but is browser based, not a download. The free service also tracks hurricanes. The tracker shows locations of NBC reporters on scene with images and blogs.

Satellite imagery is old-school, but it's news for the average PC user. U.S. intelligence started photography surveillance in the 1960s. NASA launched the first satellite for civic use (Landsat) in 1972. The Global Positioning System, or GPS, began in 1980 with the use of terrain-mapping technology, which paved the way for the imagery satellites in use today. But it wasn't until 1995 that OrbView-1 was launched as the first commercial imaging satellite.

While this marriage of Big Brother and the home computer seems a natural evolution, there is some concern that national security could be compromised.

Australia's nuclear power chief complained in August that images of a nuclear reactor are visible to Google Earth users. But Google says "Earth" is built from sources already available to the public; the images are usually 3 years old, and are photographed using both satellites and planes.

MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and Camp Anaconda in Iraq also are visible using Google Earth, but MacDill spokesman Capt. Danny Cooper downplayed security fears: "We know that commercial satellite imagery exists and we take steps with that knowledge to mitigate the danger. For years, if you had the money, you could purchase images of military bases. The fact that people can get their hands on it is nothing new, but now people can just do it through their Web browser."

Capt. Steven Smith, who recently served in Iraq, thinks the rewards outweigh the risks. Using Google Earth, Smith said he easily found bases he visited in Iraq. "Although the imagery is not up to par with what the military is using for planning on the ground, it's certainly good enough to show your loved ones where you were at in the sandbox."

Smith, who lives in Ohio, runs ArmyAdvice.org, a resource for soldiers who blog about topics that reflect military life. He supposes that terrorists and other enemies of the United States could use an application like Google Earth.

"The level of detail and ease of use are way beyond what was available a year ago," Smith said. "However, I don't believe that it means the tool should be outlawed or restricted. It's equally useful to private citizens, law enforcement or our own military."

So while spy agencies have their methods of searching for Osama bin Laden, civilians are collaborating on message boards and blogs to find Area 51, Iraq military bases, parked Stealth fighters, a giant Bob the Builder and crop circles.

Dockery leads demonstrations and computer help sessions once a month at the Palm Harbor Library. "I'm not obsessed with Google Earth, just a very big fan," he said. "I would like to find a real fanatic who could undoubtedly show me more whiz-bang features. It appears to be loaded with them, but I don't have the time to play."

[Last modified October 10, 2005, 10:18:12]


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