Four Features of Google Earth

(Note: this article is about the desktop version of Google Earth and not about the web version. Read about the difference)

For many years, Google Earth has been my favorite product by the company from California. Okay, the search engine is also very useful. But it remains priceless to be able to travel in a matter of seconds from outer space to any place on Earth. Or on the Moon or Mars.

An unconvenient side effect however is that programs like Google Earth tend to fall victim to rapidly aging. It’s much more fun when the used satellite and aerial imagery, and the layer with the 3D buildings, are current. And lately Google didn’t really seem to do its best to keep things up to date.

Especially in the dynamic and rapidly changing city center of Rotterdam that became noticable. New icons such as “verical city” De Rotterdam and the Market Hall were missing. And the Central Station had been renewed, like in the real world, but they forgot to digitally take down the blue temporary station building.


So I was pleasantly surprised when I recently flew to Rotterdam again and saw that the 3D layer in a large part of the city had undergone a very thorough update. Even a more recent icon, the Timmerhuis, only half a year old, is there:

Image made in Google Earth of the layer of 3d buildings in downtown Rotterdam, showing the city hall, the former post office, Beurs wtc and the new Timmerhuis
City Hall, Timmerhuis and Post Office

The 3D models are not put together by an army of modelers, but are automatically generated from a large number of aerial photos. That works out remarkably well: you should not get too close, but from a distance it looks amazingly lifelike. Even elements such as trees, ships and cranes are displayed properly.

The 3D layer is also available in Google Maps, a service that runs in your web browser and for which you don’t have to download Google Earth. So does Google Earth actually have added value next to Google Maps? Yes, for a lot of reasons, I’ll give you four. There are more, but these are my four favorite features in Google Earth.

Feature 1: adding surfaces

It is possible to add polygons, or say surfaces, to the Google Earth database, and to give them a color and elevation. This offers, for example, the possibility to visualize what would happen when the sea level rises. This image shows the area around Market Hall with a rise of ten meters:

Image of the city center of Rotterdam, made in Google Earth, visualizing the vicinity of Markthal when the sea level rises ten metres
Markthal, Pencil and Blaak station

Of course it should be noted that in this situation, downtown Amsterdam would already best almost completely under water. In Rotterdam, the water can rise by dozens of meters more before everything is drowned. Not that that would be a good idea, of course.

Feature 2: Adding pictures

Except polygons you can add photos or maps to Google Earth and play with their transparency. Here we see for instance the 1939 layer of my Double Street Map Rotterdam 1939-2016, superimposed on the current situation. In those days there was water between the Market Hall and the Cube Houses: the Kolk. Also Blaak was still water and Binnenrotte was much narrower than it is today:

Image made in Google Earth of the area around Markthal in downtown Rotterdam, with present day buildings on a streetmap from 1939
Today’s city on the old street map

If you want to see it for yourself: here is the kmz file. It works, of course, only if you have Google Earth installed on your computer.

Feature 3 adding 3D models

You can also place your own 3D models, or models from the 3D Warehouse, on the Google globe. Here is, for example, the old Bijenkorf department store by architect W.M Dudok, placed on its original site. As I showed in my Bijenkorf triptych, the building was in the middle of what is now Coolsingel, Westblaak and Churchill Square. All that’s left of that monument, the facade sculpture by Hendrik van den Eijnde, will hopefully one day return to this spot.

Image made in Google Earth showing the old Bijenkorf department store by architect W.M.Dudok on its original location on Westblaak, Churchillplein and Coolsingel in Rotterdam
The old Bijenkorf on Churchillplein

The model is made by Wouter van Faassen; my own 3d model is a bit too complex.

Feature 4: the flight simulator

Finally, we have the flight simulator, found under the pull down menu extra, or by pressing Ctrl-Alt-A. There is a choice of only two aircraft, an F-16 and SR-22. But you have the world to fly over (or the Moon and Mars). Steering is done with the mouse or the arrow keys on the keyboard.

It is not so easy to keep course and certainly not to land on, for example, Zestienhoven, or let’s call it Rotterdam The Hague Airport. Not even mentioning a stunt flight under the Erasmus Bridge. But fortunately, the statement “Your plane has crashed” always has the option resume flight.

Image made using the flight simulator in Google Earth showing the south bank and Erasmusbridge in Rotterdam
Stunt flight under Erasmus bridge

Update: the web version of Google Earth

On April 18, 2017, Google launched the web version of Earth. It runs entirely within their own browser Chrome and since recently also within most other browsers. In itself, that web version works fine, but a number of favorite options from the classic Google Earth are not (yet) included. For example, the flight simulator is missing (or it is very well hidden, you never know with Google). Adding pictures and 3d models is also not possible. And though you can add surfaces, they refuse to be adjusted in height.

In short, for those four tricks mentioned above you really need the desktop version. It still exists and has been renamed Google Earth Pro, but does not seem to be a priority for Google anymore. Strangely enough in that version, the 3d buildings, which are fairly up-to-date in the web version, are back to where they were. The center of Rotterdam looks like it’s still 2010, without the Markthal and with the blue temporary station building.

Google has announced that it will expand the web version at a later stage with favorite options from the classic version. (“They’re our favorites too”). But after three years you start wondering what they have been doing all this time. Anyway, for the time being I use both versions: the web version for the 3d buildings and the desktop version to fly over the Alps, the Sahara or Iceland with the flight simulator.

Screenshot of the webversion of Google Earth, with 3d buildings in downtown Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Google Earth’s web version

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Spam-controle: * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.