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Virtual Geography - Google Earth

by: Annette M. Hall
Posted: August 4, 2005

I have a confession to make. As far back as I can remember I have been one of those freaks who really love Geography. Growing up I was always reading about far away places. I'm thrilled to meet people from foreign countries. I enjoy pumping them for details and hearing tidbits about their native land.

That is partially why I am simply captivated by Google Earth, a program my husband shared with me today. He is always sending me links to new search engines and resources. This one blew me away. The download and installation was fast and easy (on dsl), after which we spent hours exploring our world.

Google Earth is a new application, which combines local search capabilities with satellite imaging and maps from around the globe. Google offers a free version, not a trial, but a full-version, available to the masses. Google Earth Plus is an optional upgrade adding GPS device support, the ability to import spreadsheets, drawing tools and better printing for a cost of $20 per year.

Currently, the application includes detailed imagery of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as many major cities in other countries. The medium to high resolution terrain provides a detailed view of the entire world. The program allows you to "Fly To" aerial views of any location on the planet.

Fun With KML

Be sure to have Google Earth installed prior to clicking the link below.

This simple example of a kml file describes several points of interest into our own lives, and a VERY basic example of one of the features of KML files. Other ways you can use them include mapping (of course!) to provide details about destinations and directions to and from various locations, icons pointing to your business and appropriate links within the descriptions.

It was once appropriate for every business website with a brick and mortar location to include a link to a MapQuest map of their location. Will it now become necessary to provide KML links as well? Time will tell.

The control console allows you to zoom in many levels, in fact we were able to find our old house in Citrus Heights. The satellite image they used was several years old. It was possible to tell because my sons old playground equipment, our trampoline including the 40 inch soccerball, which was still inside the enclosure and my backyard swing, were all clearly visible on screen. We were totally amazed.

Of course such high resolution wasn't available for every location, unfortunately. However, I will say the view of the Grand Canyon, my first trip out, was incredible.

The "Fly To" feature accepts an address, place name, cross street or simple Latitude/Longitude coordinates and zooms you quickly in to the specified location. Using the the controls at this point allows you to zoom, tilt, pan or rotate the view, for amazing results.

Google Earth provides the option of displaying local lodging, road markers, terrain, local dining options, geographical borders and 3D buildings over the satellite image. I was a little disappointed to find a very limited selection of lodging and dining options for the areas I checked. I assume this will be a selling point for advertisers, perhaps a feature, which will later be tied to Google Adwords.

Even with all the neat tools to play with, what really amazed me the most was that my eight-year-old son came over to check out what I was up to and stayed. He was so interested in Google Earth that he actually took my mouse away from me several times just so he could "check something out". We had to leave an hour later or he would probably still be playing with it.

Being raised with a computer he's not the easiest child in the world to impress and I couldn't help but notice he was really into playing with Google Earth. The controls were easy for him to understand and manipulate. What a terrific geographical tool for teaching our children about the world around us.

I've had several map programs in the past and while this isn't MapQuest, in some ways it's better. Google Earth is an awesome application, blending the best of satellite imagery with Google's search and mapping capabilities.

I'm always on the look out for free programs, which encourage my son to learn more about the world around him. While we've travelled around the country these past few years, we've had terrific opportunities to discuss geography and learn about the various areas we visited. However, if you can't make the trip in person, this is the next best thing to being there.

Most of the reviews have been pretty positive regarding the product, though I was a little dismayed to see one writer responded with:

Nice to almost see my house. But: last time I checked, this country was called the Netherlands and our neighbors in the south lived in Belgium. According to G, the names have been swapped ;)

Goggle Earth is still in beta form, we can hope that they will get all the bugs worked out soon. In the meantime I'd like to share some other neat geography tools.

Geography Online

There are many terrific geography programs available online that will allow you to place or name all 50 U.S. States, provide access to outline maps and informative, detailed geographical orientation that kids, which your children will enjoy and keep them entertained for hours. The links below are just a few that my family has found helpful...

Map Reading Skills

Being raised in a family of individuals who seemingly have no natural sense of direction, I've found map reading to be an important skill. So, in our travels I like to have an extra map or two on hand for the kids to navigate with.

I provide the child with a highlighter so that he or she can map out our course ahead of time, they assume the co-pilots seat, in the front next to the driver. Of course the driver has to follow directions careful, never making a turn unless the navigator directs the driver to do so.

It's fun to let the kids be in charge for awhile, teaching them not only map reading skills but also how to give clear directions. Just be sure to allow extra time for your travels until your navigator perfects his craft. You could end up in some interesting destinations to be sure. Don't forget to fill up the tank. :)

Be sure to pick up a copy of Carschooling to take along in your travels, your children will be glad you did and it could be miles before you hear, "Are we there yet?"

Buenos Aires Garden

Take a Virtual Vacation

When your stuck at home, the kidlets are needing some direction and you really want to go somewhere, anywhere but can't... Try one of these virtual trips. Why stay home bored when you can take an exotic vacation for the mind?

Virtual Reality Resources

Virtual Reality is a growing field of technology that facinates and entertains users for hours. The sites below are for the serious investigator of VR. If you or your child have an intense interest in learning more about this growing technology, these sites will provide you answers to questions you didn't know you had.

Virtual Reality Lab
The Virtual Reality Lab is mainly involved in the modelling and animation of Three-Dimensional Inhabited Virtual Worlds. If your child is facinated by virtual reality, this site explores techniques in simulated motion, synthesized virtual human animation in a virtual environment. [Suitable for teens.]

Virtual Polyhedra
This site is a free self-contained easy-to-explore tutorial, reference work, and object library for people interested in polyhedra. Polyhedra have an enormous aesthetic appeal and the subject is fun and easy to learn on one's own. [Suitable for teens.]

Active Worlds
Active Worlds Virtual Reality experience, lets you visit and chat in incredible 3D worlds that are built by other users. Think you have what it takes to build your own world or Virtual Reality game? You can create fascinating 3D worlds that others can visit and chat in. [Parental Supervision Advised.]

I will be adding more links to this section in the days ahead, so be sure to check back for a continuing education in the field of virtual reality.