The Second Blue Marble: The Strange History of Google Earth

The cell phone has become an important tool in the outdoors—not the most reliable, but certainly helpful in some situations. How did we get here?

words:: Ben Osborne

Before following the blue dot was a widely accepted method of navigation, paper maps were the end-all-be-all. While relying solely on your electronic device in the backcountry is a foolish decision, it is the sad reality of many hikers, bikers, skiers, and so on in this day and age—and the cause of many search and rescue situations as navigational skills dwindle and reliance on technology grows. But there’s a reason so many people rely on it—and that’s because it’s pretty darn useful.

On June 11, 2001, Google Earth was introduced to the world wide web, and the landscape of mapping and navigation for not only backcountry users but everyday people was forever changed. The introduction of a computer program that renders a 3D representation of the Earth using a mix of satellite imagery, aerial photography, and GIS Data, Google Earth has had a profound effect on the entire way our world percieves navigation, maps, and much more.  The technology allows users to explore the earth by entering addresses, coordinates, landmarks, and more. While it has grown and implemented new features over the years, it’s landmark features have remained the same.

Before this picture was taken by the Apollo 17 crew, our understanding of the earth was drastically different.

Before the aerial tours, street view, and mountain junkies like us wasting hours away searching for new zones, the technology was actually developed for  3D gaming software. In the late 1990’s, Intrinsic Graphics, later acquired by Vicarious Visions, was developing exciting gaming platforms of the future, and on one of their projects created a 3D spinning globe, a pared-down version what we see today on Google Earth. Aware that they had created an interesting platform but not fully invested, the company created a separate entity, Keyhole Inc, headed by a man named John Hanke.

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The company was founded as a geospatial data visualization firm, getting funding from Sony and most notably supplying important technology to media during the Iraq War. Realizing its utility, CNN purchased the rights to use the technology during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, allowing viewers to follow the progress of the war in a way that views had never experienced. Soon after, the heavyweights started calling: first the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), then the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

With the eyes of the American public on this newfound way to visualize the Earth’s surface, it was clear that this could be a valuable tool—it just needed to be put on a platform to be accessible for the everyday citizen. This was enough to garner the attention of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and after finding that over 25% of it’s searches were “of geospatial character”, acquired the company in October 2004. After it’s acquisition, Google spent the necessary time and money to bring Keyhole’s technology to the general public, and in 2011 launched the first version of Google Earth.

The Second Blue Marble

Since the realese of Google Earth, the platform has remained the same in, but there have been some notable upgrades. In 2013, using datamining, Google was able to remedy a hardware malfunction leaving diagonal gaps in some of the images. By remedying the issue and relying on the latest and greatest NASA Satellite Data, Google Earth provided what was lauded as the “Second Blue Marble”—which, if you were alive in the 70’s, is quite the compliment.

The Blue Marble, the first photo of the earth from space taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 on December 12th, 1972, changed the way we view the world. One of the most reproduced images ever taken, the photo had a cultural and scientific effect that was both unpredictable and profound.

With resolution between 15 metres and 15 centimetres, the second coming of the Blue Marble is undeniably impressive, even if it isn’t “the real thing”. Source: Google Earth

Today, imagery resolution ranges from an amazing 15 meters to 15 centimetres by using NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. Being so accurate, the software has been both lauded and heavily criticized due to it’s unbelievable accuracy—with many concerned that this could lead to a national security threat, and could be a tool used by terrorists. Most recently, Google introduced Historical Imagery, allowing the user to view imagery from the past—which, among many other uses, might be particularly helpful for outdoor enthusiasts in the era of shrinking snowpacks and changing landscapes.

The Future Of Google Earth

 Today, Google is so much more than just a tool for outdoors folks—it helps monitor tropical rainforests, make maps to predict the spread of malaria, increase awareness of cultural heritage sites, and helps raise awareness of poverty and access to clean water through layers like WaterAid.

The ability to raise awareness of these hyper-detailed maps are endless, and for the outdoor industry and fight for climate awareness, they will be a helpful tool in raising awareness by being able to point out important deficiencies.

Just twenty years ago for every trail network, backcountry ski zone, and hike, a paper map was an absolute necessity. For most of the general public, they now seem like an afterthought. Although Google Earth is an amazing tool, it is just that—a tool. It has changed the landscape of navigation, but for the outdoor community introduced a complex tool with obvious benefits and downfalls. The technology came from a world you may not expect—and where it’s going will be just as tough to predict.  —ML