Notes on the origin of Google Earth

Geography 2.0: Virtual Globes: Notes on the origin of Google Earth and Ogle Earth : Google Earth Origin Myths

So we seem to have a few diverging memories on the origin and motivation behind Google Earth. One co-founder says it was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. One co-founder says it was the famous Powers of Ten flip-book and movie. One of the prime forces behind Google Earth even claims it was the Star Trek tricorder.

I have to admit, the tricorder motivation was new to me. The first two were openly discussed, especially Snow Crash. In fact, early on, before we even launched, I spent some time trying to get Neal Stephenson to visit our offices, for a demo at least.

I’d met him in 1993 when he spent some time hanging out in my first VR startup in Seattle. Worldesign was focused on being a VR design boutique, which was way too premature in 1993, but quite fashionable these days. And we’d built a few cool toys, like a fully functioning CAVE in our back room.

He wasn’t interested in visiting Keyhole, or didn’t have time. My best guess is that he was somewhat tired of hearing us engineering geeks rave about Snow Crash as a grand vision for the future. That may have something to do with Snow Crash being a dystopian vision; prescient, but cautionary. Why so many people treat it like a blueprint for the future is a mystery, even to someone like me who works in VR.

So that puts a bit of a damper on SnowCrash being the official motivation, though I’m sure it was important for some of us. No. The better motivation for Google Earth is most similar to what Mark said, though there’s a deeper answer still.

Silicon Graphics (SGI) invented a hardware component called the "Clip-Map" texture unit, which made it relatively painless to render a "Powers of Ten" style animation in real-time. They called their demo "Space to Face," which was amazingly cool, though fairly limited in scope — you zoomed down from space to one spot on Earth. Mark did a lot of the data building for that and Michael Jones worked on the technology, along with a few others who’ve gone on to do cool things. One of them was Chris Tanner, who later invented a way to do Clip Mapping purely in software on commodity PCs, which was the key patent that lead us to spin-off Keyhole from Intrinsic Graphics (previously founded by Michael, Chris, Brian McClendon, and Remi Arnaud).

So Mark’s "Powers of Ten" answer is closest to the literal truth, especially from his direct experience. But it’s not enough to call it the prime motivation. "Powers of Ten" is/was amazing in that is helps one understand the scale of the universe and how sizes relate across the spectrum. But Google Earth is more than just a size comparison tool. "What’s was it really good for?" was the question we had to answer before we wrote a single line of code.

The answer has something to do with Al Gore and "An Inconvenient Truth." I was reminded of it this weekend, when watching him feature the images of the Earth from space.

Yes, whether you love him or hate him, Al Gore undeniably did more than any other politician to help create the internet in terms of funding, leadership, and support (notice the difference in context between "helped create…" and the conservative fantasy word "invented…"). Less well known is that Gore was also the prime force behind the Digital Earth initiative, which, among other things, aimed to make satellite photography available to non-military users.

All of it.

Let’s face it. Most people in our lifetime will never get to space. We’ll never get to see the planet as a whole, living, breathing space ship, our only home. Now I’m not sure if he realized that we could literally build that vision on networked PCs as early as 1999. With the 2000 election as it was, we never had a chance to find out. We discussed bringing him in to visit. But the political implications were complex (In-Q-Tel, the CIA venture capital arm, later invested in Keyhole and Keyhole did major deals with other parts of the government) and they still are, which may be why this connection wasn’t mentioned.

But this much is clear: without commercially available high-resolution satellite imagery, Google Earth would not exist. Without the open Internet, Google Earth (and this blog and a bunch of other things we like) would not exist. And for that, we owe some thanks to Al Gore. So regardless of what you think of his politics, one of the clear motivations behind GE was a shared desire to give people a vision of the Earth as a seamless whole and give them the tools to do something with that vision.

This is reflected in the technology and interface you see. Unlike most maps, in GE, you can turn off national boundaries and see the world as it really is. Early versions even drew the earth with realistic sun-lighting and looked quite natural for day and night (I’d love to see this return). The ability to add data layers helps you see how regions are really connected. Even the basic navigational metaphor was designed to give a gestalt view. When you fly from place to place, you don’t take a flight-simulator route, you fly up into space, see the planet whole, and then zoom back down. That has some technical advantages in terms of optimal streaming. But it also gives an aesthetic feel that reminds you, every time you use the app, how everything is connected. It is also, not coincidentally, the path a ballistic missile would take. I was very aware of all of those things when I wrote that bit of code. And the fact that the default initial view shows the planet as a whole is ample evidence that Objectivists can be Environmentalists too.

If there’s anything that "Powers of Ten," dystopian SnowCrash, the Digital Earth, and perhaps even Michael’s tricorder idea have in common, it’s that GE is a tool for understanding, diagnosing, and making the Earth a better place.

13 thoughts on “Notes on the origin of Google Earth

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  7. I’m a grad student and science teacher in search of the origin of Google Earth. I would like to present and give credit to the origins. too many skeptics out there….why is it so hard to find truth on software that is so new??

    • I’m not sure it’s so hard given the above post, but big companies don’t often like to talk about such things unless there’s a specific reason for doing so. So that could make it hard in most cases.

      What are people skeptical of?

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