The Earth must be 100 feet high—anything but the pale blue dot wandering in the cosmos that Carl Sagan once described. Instead, it’s a mighty blue wall, pulling me in with urgent gravity. But where to go? I grab at the ocean and flick my wrist, spinning the surface to peruse the literal world of options before me.
This is Google Earth as we’ve never seen it before. Rather than looking through a computer or tablet screen, I’m standing in it, flying through it, and occasionally getting a little nauseous because of it. I’m experiencing Google Earth using the best VR system on the market—HTC’s Vive headset. Google just released this new VR version for free—assuming you’ve got $2000 or so in specialty gear to try it out. That said, you should really figure out how to get your hands on $2000 or so in specialty gear to try it out.
It’s downright cliché to champion VR for its immersion factor, to claim that "you’ve never worked a job until you've played Job Simulator!" (Yes, that’s a real VR game.) But if there ever were an argument that immersion can fundamentally change the nature of a known experience, it’s Google Earth through the virtual lens.
As you fly toward a city from space, loose terrain becomes satellite imagery, and that satellite imagery gives way to full 3D models of buildings. Floating above it all, our urban spaces take on the same explorable dynamics of a giant, intricate railroad sets built by master craftsman. That is to say, no detail is perfectly sharp or photoreal, but the scaling is proper and the facsimile is amazing all the same. You can walk through these cityscapes at Godzilla height, twisting your head around Willis tower, or poking it into the Colosseum. And behind any landmark, an entire skyline is rendered with the care of a historian. Standing over Florence, I got a pull in my gut, remembering a visit years before, and how the Duomo resembles a water drop undulating through the city’s red rooftops.
Google Earth turns off a few features by default to cut down on nausea. I’d recommend turning them back on. One option blurs the sides of your vision as you move. The other prevents you from zooming all the way down to a ground view, to make yourself the size of a mere mortal walking the streets. Google was right—these factors will contribute to nausea, but it’s worth it.
I learned that lesson over Rio De Janeiro, as I floated behind Christ the Redeemer. It’s a scene I’ve seen countless times, but I’ve never visited—I’ve never actually stood on the top of Corcovado Mountain and felt the scale of the statue over the city. So I flew to its feet and looked up. Then I turned to Rio itself, reached into the sky, and pulled the sun toward the horizon to give everything a golden glow. It’s no replacement for a plane ticket. But it’s a hell of a model.