Google Earth’s Deep Dive

Google trotted out some eclectic star power Feb. 2 to show a new version of Google Earth that spotlights the world’s oceans. At an event at the California Academy of Sciences museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and executives Marissa Mayer and John Hanke shared a stage with Al Gore, who gave a lesson on glacial retreat; Jimmy Buffett, who serenaded the press corps; and oceanographer Sylvia Earle, whose prodding led to the software’s development.

Google Earth lets users fly and zoom around a 3-D map of the globe from their computers, and the new version 5 includes detailed ocean maps that let users skim along the water’s surface, or dive beneath. Blue and white globe icons call up panels with photos, video, and text descriptions of squid, sharks, the Great Barrier Reef, and other sea life. There’s also the ability to wind back the clock to see what spots on the earth looked like in years past.

Gore got a rousing ovation from the crowd—this is San Francisco, after all—after using the site’s wayback machine to show a Montana glacier’s melting since the early ‘90s.

Buffett, who’s using Google Earth to promote his current tour by marking venues and providing links to ticket sales (“I’ve found a lot of Parrotheads among the Googlers,” he noted), brought along an acoustic guitar and belted out “Son of a Son of a Sailor.”

For Google, the new software serves several functions. It provides a dose of green PR; the company points out in its press release how users can roll back the clock to see how climate change has affected the land and sea over time. Google said it developed the software with the counsel of Earle, who pushed the company several years ago to add ocean maps to Google Earth.

The release positions Google as a tool for scientists to communicate their findings to the public. Schmidt called version 5 a “platform for science,” meaning users can add their own data to the application, including “tours” of geographic and oceanographic features complete with audio narration. Scientists can publish data using Google’s KML markup language to chart temperature changes, spotlight points of interest, or show a dolphin’s swimming path. And users can embed Google Earth into their site to support a scientific paper or blog.

Google also wants Earth to drive users toward location-aware ads on its Maps and mobile phone search products. “It has commercial benefits as well,” Hanke, director of Google’s Earth and Maps products, told me. “We want you to use Google tools to find out about interesting places around you.”

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