Google Earth Has a 3-D Soapbox

By Ben Charny  |  Posted 2006-06-12

Google Earth's become a forum for editorializing via Google SketchUp, a relatively new feature that lets you create 3-D images that appear on Google Earth's satellite maps.

The sometimes haunting pictorials demonstrate the beauty and challenge of letting consumers have a direct hand in the look and feel of an Internet-based feature. As with Google Earth, there are highs and lows.

There are lots of examples to point to. Take the SketchUp images found on Google Earth maps of the locations of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Maps of New York City and Washington include user-generated 3-D references to that day.

Many of the 9/11 references are tributes, or so it seems. Typical is the so-far lone recreation of the World Trade Center's twin towers, which collapsed and killed thousands nearly five years ago.

It's at first startling, then moving, to watch the featureless, ghost-like images appear as the Google Earth map of Manhattan resolves.

There are also 3-D renditions of the Freedom Tower and other buildings that will eventually rise from the Twin Towers' site.

These versions are much more detailed, as if created to educate the eye for a future when the skyline's gap has been filled. Again, it's all tasteful, moving and touches a nerve.

But there's also a lowest common denominator to be seen.

What else explains why someone would offer up a representation of United Flight 93; essentially, it's an airplane pointed downward. It can be added to versions of New York City after a search for the 'Empire State building.'

(Flight 93 crashed near Somerset, Pa., after an uprising by the hijacked passengers. Curiously, there are no 3-D images on maps of Somerset, Pa.)

There's also a rather crude airplane that can be added to a map of Washington, D.C., after a search for 'White House.' It's an obvious reference to Flight 93's intended target, the White House.

For more evidence of this 3-D-editorializing facet to Google Earth, check out the $80 barrel of oil that hovers over Washington.

It's easy enough to avoid all these 3-D shenanigans for those offended or otherwise not curious enough.

But at the same time, a new rendition of Google Earth introduced June 12 seeks to introduce more people to the thrills and chills of creating 3-D imagery, thus providing a means for more soapbox sentimentality.

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