Google is unleashing a new version of Google Earth, version 5.2, today. It’s the biggest update since Earth 5.0 added the oceans and Mars in February of 2009–and while it’s not that big, it’s got one major cool new feature and one modest-but-useful one. Google gave me a sneak peek of the new version last week.
The major cool new feature is aimed at folks who like to go adventuring and take a GPS navigation handheld along. If you tote a GPS unit such as the ones from Garmin and Magellan to track a hike, bike ride, sailing trip, or any other excursion, you can transfer the data to Google Earth once you’re home. In the past, doing so involved creating thousands of points of geographic information, but the new version of the software can create simpler plots of where you were at any given point in time. And it lets you view this data as birds-eye animations that track where you went, recreated with Earth’s wealth of geographic photography and 3D imagery. You can also share the reconstructions with other Google Earth users or publish them using the embeddable version of Earth.
For now, the feature only works with data captured by standalone GPS units supported by Google Earth–it’s compatible with hundreds of models–but the idea of it tying into Google smartphone apps like Latitude and the mobile version of Google Earth itself is intriguing.
You can dress up your reconstructions by importing a vehicle model such as a bike or boat from Google’s 3D Warehouse, but this requires massaging a text file by hand, and therefore isn’t for Google Earth newbies. It would be neat if a future version of Earth made it a point-and-click process.
Previous versions of Google Earth let you view local information on businesses you found within its maps, but launched your Web browser and sent you to Google Maps to do so. The new version of the software sports an embedded WebKit-based browser, so you can browse around without leaving Google Earth.
Most of us know Google Earth in its free form, but Google also sells a Pro edition for $400 a year, aimed at people with a professional interest in geographical information. It too is getting some new features, including more built-in sets of information such as demographic data and land parcels. And it lets users import maps stored as mammoth, unwieldy image files, then graft them into Google Earth in a manner that’s as fast and easy to explore as any other aspect of the program.
Google Earth is available in Windows, Mac, and Linux versions; in any incarnation, it’s one of Google’s most amazing offerings, and well worth revisiting if it’s been awhile since you last explored it. Here’s Google’s blog post on 5.2.