Google Earth in Browser

Google Earth Blog

Looks like Frank Taylor is first to post the news that Google Earth will now run in a browser. That’s huge. However, don’t expect the full GE UI or feature set, according to his sources. This is meant to be driven by Javascript in the surrounding web page. Better to think of it as Google Maps goes 3D, albeit at real-time interactive frame rates.

For mashups, this will be an amazing enabler. Expect to see it anywhere you might see Maps today, assuming it’s popular, and why not? And I’m sure this is meant to be a swift kick in the pants to Microsoft’s VE, which already runs in browser and does similar mashups.

Questions to be answered: is it deployed as an ActiveX control? [update, see below: it seems to be] Frank is abundantly clear that this plugin doesn’t require Google Earth to be installed (though with over 250M downloads, who doesn’t have it?). If it’s ActiveX, then it would still require a download and install. Hardware 3D accelerated Flash 10 is still in Beta, so I doubt that’s the vehicle. The ideal is to use a plugin or browser feature that’s already ubiquitous, so as to avoid the download and web pages that don’t work 100% when you first visit.

Historical footnote: We (back at Keyhole) seriously contemplated releasing EarthViewer as an in-browser ActiveX control from the very beginning. There was no technical reason we couldn’t launch that way — OpenGL runs fine whether it has its own app window or uses the browser context — same code, apart from the COM interfaces and window context.

But there were and are other considerations with using ActiveX that made us steer away, some big, some small:

  • Can’t resize the 3D window to fit the context — not ideal for something meant to be immersive (see all of the amazing Web 3D in-browser success stories… oh wait). Thankfully, YouTube and others have pushed the idea of "go fullscreen," so maybe that’s the way to handle it.
  • Can’t [easily] put other browser elements on top of the 3D rendering — flicker city. You can build UI in Javascript outside the view and have it drive and be driven by the 3D plugin. But integrating 2D and 3D content has to be done inside the 3D rendering code inside the plugin, which is a major flaw of browsers, IMO. 2D and 3D content needs to be able to move freely in and out, cut and paste, zoom and shrink. But browsers aren’t there yet.
  • Installation of AX controls isn’t better than a regular download/install — and some of Microsoft’s safeguards (see below) make it worse.
  • AX controls have to start up immediately and go away quickly when one navigates from page to page. GE used to take more time, even just to authenticate your license (now, not so much an issue).
  • ActiveX can take total control of your browser, and your entire computer to boot. While few AX controls are intentionally malicious, hackers can exploit security holes, bad programming for the most part, to effectively do the same. All it takes is a custom webpage somewhere that quietly invokes your seemingly safe plugin and exploits a known weakness — string handling turning into buffer overflow, for example. It takes a lot of careful work to prevent such holes (and management doesn’t always listen to the need). The more popular the plug-in, the bigger the target.
  • People are reluctant to install ActiveX controls, because of the security issues, and simply because they’re impatient and just want everything to work right off the bat.

Anyway, I’m hoping the GE Team has worked around a lot of this by now, given their resources and creativity. Maybe this plugin will also be installed more or less automatically when you install the next version of GE? I mean, why not?

What would be even more interesting is what a Google Earth in-browser client does beyond the mashup. My secret hope was always that EarthViewer would become ubiquitous enough that it could move beyond rendering the Earth & info and become a standard viewing window for any spatialized content, geographic or not.

Think about it. 3D is a superset of 2D. So why do we always run 3D in a tiny little window? Doesn’t it make much more sense to re-thread the web, using real spatial metaphors. Well, people have tried. But arbitrary navigational metaphors don’t seem to work too well. You’ve seen some attempts to put 2D webpages on the walls of some simple 3D room or hallway. Nothing too compelling so far, mainly because it’s just an arbitrary arrangement of elements, not a real cognitive mapping of some informational relationships.

Geographical organization, however, makes a lot of sense to people. Moving around the information also makes intuitive sense, as does zooming in and out to trade breadth for depth. But doing this in GE means moving away from little icons you can click on and really figuring out how to display the web without a stack of pages cluttering the view — doable, but not trivially so.

Anyway, Frank promises more details later today, and possibly said plugin to test. I’m looking forward to giving it a test run.


Update: It does seem to be using ActiveX for IE — at least the dll is thusly named. Installation was pretty simple, but required a restart of Firefox. Also interesting is that, despite all of the code changes, it’s still using Intrinsic Alchemy for the 3D rendering.

My favorite sample is this one.  I didn’t know milk trucks could fly so far. You could almost recreate my favorite scene in the "Blues Brothers" movie with the Nazi-wagon falling from higher and higher each cut. 


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