Imagine being able to view the planet as if it were a marble floating in space. Turn it round at will, then fly at speed so close to the ground you can count the cars in a car park or the number of elephants in a herd on the African plains. The new Google Earth allows you to do just that.
A powerful, easy-to-use, virtual globe, it is still in development, but, even at this stage, Google has completed a mammoth task by stitching together a huge tapestry of satellite imagery and aerial photographs, all of them taken in daylight and with little cloud cover to obscure our view of the Earth below. In fact, the occasional tufted white clouds contrasting with their shadows on, for example, a desert in South America, simply add to the sense of scale.
Type a place name or even a postcode into the "Fly To" search bar and the Earth rotates and you zoom in so that you are hovering above your desired location in one smooth movement.
There is a notable difference in levels of detail, with a phenomenal clarity to many urban areas. As Google Earth develops, it will hopefully become more detailed in all the rural regions of the world.
It is possible to add multiple layers of additional information. Country and region borders are updated whenever they may change. Roads are labelled with increasing detail the nearer you get to ground level, making it easy to locate a well-known local landmark. Type two places into the "Directions" tool bar and a detailed route map with instructions is displayed on the aerial view.
Perhaps the most impressive, and useful in a school context is the National Geographic Magazine layer, with links to feature articles and detailed aerial photographs. The Africa mega-flyover contains diaries of research groups and articles on wildlife and people.
Some major cities have an additional layer: the ability to view buildings in 3D. As you change the perspective and angle of view you get the feeling you could fly, Spiderman-like, through the streets.
It is possible to save and share places (KML files) to recommend locations to others.
In school, the opportunities are endless. For a class assembly on food miles we investigated where the ingredients for a slice of pizza had come from. We used Google Earth to navigate our way to the location of all the elements of our meal: tomatoes from Saudi Arabia; sweetcorn from Mexico; even the chicken had come from Thailand.
Google Earth features a tool that can measure distances to the nearest centimetre. You can also map out a route for a journey across the globe, measuring its distance in any scale from centimetres and kilometres, through to miles and "Smoots" (look it up, it's worth it!).
Much to our horror we discovered that our pizza, which came from "round the corner" with "free local delivery", had actually travelled a total of 80,607 miles!
A powerful message about sourcing food locally was conveyed in a class assembly when we projected Google Earth on to a whiteboard and "flew" each ingredient to school.
In a project on rivers, groups of children were able to investigate their chosen river and then create a fact file including images they had saved from Google Earth. A marvellous collage of maps, and photographs brought each location to life.
Google Earth is made up from images taken anything up to three years ago.
As the technology develops, who knows, maybe we will be able to investigate different layers of information organised by date, season or time of day.
At the end of the day my class and I sometimes let Google Earth transport us to a remarkable new destination on the planet. I watch my children's eyes widen at the startling sights, and I think to myself: "What a wonderful world!"
Free downloadable software for exploring the world through satellite and aerial photographs. Windows only.
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