Google has introduced a new feature for adding three-dimensional images to online satellite maps.
Here's how it works: Google Sketchup, which is free to download, creates three-dimensional images to add to Google Earth satellite maps. The images can be stored, put on public view or shared at an online locker Google calls 3D Warehouse.
Say you're running a real estate company: Now you can stock a map with a reasonable facsimile of a home for sale. There are lots of other examples.
The new-to-Google facet was created by @Last Software, a company that Google bought in mid-March.
With the move, Google's hoping to bring out the inner designer in all its consumers. "Visionaries, utopians, virtual world builders: Your time has come," Google Sketchup Product Manager Director Brad Schell writes on Google's blog.
He adds that with the new feature, Google's servicing its "long-time vision of making 3D accessible to everyone."
There's the "mashup" factor to consider. Adding 3-D graphics makes Google Earth maps, and Google, much more enticing to developers of online features using satellite imagery.
Google could also be reacting to Yahoo's recent moves into satellite maps.
But there seems to be much more to this, which Google wasn't immediately saying.
For instance, it seems plausible that Google would incorporate 3-D graphics into other Google features, if only to give them an added "cool" factor to make them more attractive to consumers.
"For now," though, a Google spokesperson said, the focus is primarily on Google Earth.
Taking it about 10 steps too far, one thing that could conceivably grow from this project is a kind of online, social networking universe ala MySpace, but with much, much better graphics.
At the very least, the raw materials for just such a network where people can go virtual world-hopping are in place. Again the spokesperson warned, "That's not where we're headed." But as history shows, it's tough to rule out anything when it comes to Google.
Google also said April 27 that the premium version of @Last's software, popular with architects and designers, is still available.