Truly global

Monday, February 11, 2008 at 8:33 AM



When I was an intern at Silicon Graphics in the '90s, some engineers and I would speculate about what it would take to accomplish impossibly large goals, like how much 3D graphics power we'd needed to perfectly recreate reality or how much disk space we'd need to store satellite imagery of the entire world at 1 meter resolution. They were fun exercises that you'd never expect to actually happen given where technology was at the time.

But as I sit here today, browsing Google Earth, those hypotheticals are no longer out of reach. When my partners and I started Keyhole back in 2001, we were focused on creating a dynamic, three dimensional, interactive map of the US with satellite and aerial imagery. We made good headway on this goal, but that only covered a little more than 6% of the world's land surface. Google acquired us in 2004, and that took us to a whole new level. It was now conceivable to tackle the inconceivable, to create a database of satellite and aerial imagery for the entire world at sub-meter resolution.

Over the past three years, the imagery team at Google has been executing on this challenge, partnering with townships, national governments, and commercial imagery providers to gather and stitch together the millions of pieces of this global imagery puzzle. We've also, of course, spent a lot of time creating new tools so that everyone can better navigate and use the unprecedented maps we've been creating. However, the new tools and layers are more obvious than the intricacies of the foundation, and so I want to take a moment to highlight just how global Google Earth is.

Google Earth is available in 13 languages and has been downloaded over 350 million times by people from around the world. People tell us that the reason they use Google Earth is because it covers the areas they care about with high resolution detail -- whether it's Timbuktu, Cabo San Lucas, or Whitiangia, New Zealand. No other online mapping provider in the world offers this global reach with sub-meter resolution imagery. In fact, we cover more than a third of the world's land surface and half of the world's population with this sort of "high definition" imagery. That means you can see details like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, the Taj Mahal in India, and the world's tallest completed skyscraper in Taipei, images you can't explore anywhere else online. Google has been able to provide this unique global imagery by partnering with hundreds of aerial and satellite imagery providers around the world. From the small town of Castillia, Colombia to National Geographic photographers like Michael Fay, we are constantly working with new content owners to include their imagery in Google Earth. It turns out that our global imagery database is helpful for reasons even beyond our expectations: it's been used in critical humanitarian efforts from the mountains of Pakistan to the deserts of Sudan.

All of this would not have possible if we took the pragmatic approach and just focused on just the most populated cities of the world. We were given the freedom and encouragement to pursue our lofty and seemingly impossible goals, which in the end has enabled an ecosystem of map mashups and KMLs that would have otherwise not existed.

We hope you enjoy the view, and continue to check back here for imagery updates and innovations.