At home in Google Earth

Giles Turnbull
22 September, 2007
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Building a home. If you don’t have a copy of Google Earth yet, you can download it for free (see “Hot links”). Once you’ve installed it, go to Google Earth: Preferences: 3D View; then make sure that the Elevation Exaggeration setting is 1, and that the Detail Area setting is Medium or Large.

That done, zoom in on your property by typing your street address into the search field. Zoom in as close as you can; make sure that you have a clear view of your land, and that the view fills the Google Earth window comfortably. Using the attitude-adjustment tool in the upper right corner of the image, adjust the view of your house to be as perfectly vertical as possible.

Now switch to SketchUp. (If you haven’t already, you can download it for free also — see “Hot links”.) If you didn’t run the basic tutorial that opens when you first launch the program, you should — the program takes some getting used to. The basic idea is that you build 3D models by stretching and pulling on simple 2D shapes. Draw a square, for example, then grab its centre and pull it up into a cube. Using that technique, you can (with a little practice) build almost any shape.

Assuming you’ve developed some familiarity with SketchUp, open a new model, and then select Tools: Google Earth: Get Current View. SketchUp will import a black-and-white copy of what Google Earth is currently displaying. This black-and-white image will serve as the template for the model of your home.

Use the Line or Rectangle tool to draw an outline that matches the outline of your house on the ground. You can then use the Push/Pull tool to drag the outline upward, turning it into a 3D box. From there, you can subtract and expand the surfaces of your rough model until it conforms to the contours of your house.

The more you work with SketchUp’s tools, the faster all this will get. (If you experience odd on-screen artefacts as you draw, go to Preferences: Open GL and turn off the Use Hardware Acceleration option.) Once your outline is done, you can add details, exteriors, textures, and materials. If you find yourself struggling to get your model right (or you just don’t have time), try downloading a ready-made design from the Google 3D Warehouse (see “Hot links”). There, you’ll find everything from simple homes to elaborate skyscrapers. You can then edit that model to your liking.

You are here.

When you’re happy with your model, it’s time to place it on a map. In SketchUp, select Tools: Google Earth: Place Model. You should be automatically switched to Google Earth, which should be displaying your model in the right place. If the model is oriented the wrong way, return to SketchUp and use the Rotate tool to get it facing the right direction; again, you can use the original image you imported from Google Earth as your guide.

Once your model has been imported into Google Earth, you should see it listed in the Places section of the sidebar, in the Temporary Places subcategory. Right-click on its name to make changes. In particular, the Get Info option will summon a dialog box where you can edit the model’s name and description; Save To My Places moves the model from the Temporary Places subcategory to your permanent Places list, so you can easily return to it another time.

Open house.

Your model now exists in two places: The original 3D model is in SketchUp, and the newly placed copy of it is in Google Earth. You can export and share either one.

To export the model from SketchUp, choose File: Export: 3D Model. This will generate a .kmz file that’s compatible with Google Earth; you can send this file to whomever you wish. As long as recipients have Google Earth, they’ll be able to double-click on the .kmz file to launch Google Earth and zoom right in on your model, correctly placed on a map. To export the model from Google Earth, select File: Save: Save Place As, and then save it as a .kmz file.

Another cool way to share models is via the Google Earth Community Layer. There’s a thriving online community of 3D–model builders who add their digital constructions to Google’s database. Models shared here will appear automatically for all Google Earth users who enable this layer. To add one of your models (say, of a public landmark or another notable building), right-click (or control-click) on it in the Places panel and select Share/Post. This will open a posting wizard in your browser. Be sure to read the terms and conditions, and always use the search function first to make sure you’re not duplicating a model someone else has already made.

More fun with Google Earth

Google Earth was designed to accept data from third parties, which means that lots of ingenious developers have been building their own Google Earth–linked add-ons. These are among my favourites:

Earth Addresser, a clever tool by earthlingsoft (see “Hot links”), looks up all of the addresses in your Address Book, figures out where they should appear on Google Earth, and then spits out a .kmz file that you can share with others. The developers acknowledge that you might want to consider the privacy issues of using Earth Addresser, since it involves sending all (or some) of your contacts’ details off to Google, unencrypted.

Live Global Clouds (see “Hot links”) is a very cool Google Earth add-on that displays nearly real-time weather data (it’s delayed by a few hours). Just download it, select File: Open, and choose that file; this should add it to your Places list.

You can view selections from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection (see “Hot links”) as overlays within Google Earth. In the View section of the sidebar, select All Layers from the drop-down menu. Next, open the Featured Content subsection; then open the Rumsey Historical Maps section within that. Select a map from the list. You don’t get the same detail that modern satellite imaging brings, but it’s fascinating to step back in time and see how some significant areas once looked (unfortunately at the time of writing there were no Australia-specific maps in the collection, but there are some historical world maps that will be of interest). If you have time, you should poke around in the Featured Content layer; there’s plenty of fascinating stuff in there.

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