Google’s New Interface: The Earth

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I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

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Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

Google Earth — So Impressive, So Depressing

Google Moon is now up and running. Is it only I who finds Google Earth electrifying and yet somewhat depressing, and disturbing?

The idea of being able to zoom into street level is amazing. The technology is extraordinary. Wonderful. It’s one of those moments when you get a real buzz, as if life has just been jolted a yard or two down the track in one second. But now I can’t go outside without thinking how many satellites might be tracking me, or wondering whether there is any place on earth that can’t be visible from space.

It’s awe-inspiring to put little markers in the map and then zoom from one corner of the world to the next, from my family home in the UK to the hotel I’m in in Hong Kong, to the actual rock on Lamma I was sitting on last week. Amazing. But at the same time seeing a journey that takes a day or two reduced to a zippy flyover is somewhat deflating. What happened the mystery of travel? Why travel the globe if you can zip around it on your computer?

The whole zooming out into space and then back is fun, too. But at the same time all it does is remind us how insignificant we are. Little blips. And yet, zooming over the planet from my house to your house also seems to make the planet a lot smaller, and not necessarily in a nice way.

I guess part of me hoped the planet would still be big enough to satisfy a couple more generations’ wanderlust, but now technology is, brilliantly but relentlessly, making everything smaller, easier to find, easier to reach. You’ve got to wonder whether traveler Michael Palin and his ilk (and he still has a few ilks) are a dying breed. Have Google and GPS buried the intrepid explorer?

I hope not.