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Google Earth is now a 3D time machine


Google has pushed out what it says is Google Earth’s “biggest update since 2017” with a new 3D time-lapse feature. Entering the new “Timelapse” mode of Google Earth will let you fly around the virtual globe with a time slider, showing you satellite imagery from the past 37 years. Google Earth Timelapse has been around for years as part of Google Earth Engine (which is a totally separate interface from Google Earth; it’s a weird Google branding thing), but it was previously only available in 2D. Now, Google has mapped all this data across the 3D Google Earth globe, where you can watch cities being built, forests being cut down, and glaciers receding.

Google Earth Timelapse isn’t just a huge amount of data; properly mapping it across the globe means correcting the images for artifacts and problems. The company had to get clouds out of the way, correct images for perspective, and ensure seamless transitioning through zoom levels. Luckily, Google happens to have some really big computers to handle the load.

The company explains what it took to make Timelapse happen:

Making a planet-sized timelapse video required a significant amount of what we call “pixel crunching” in Earth Engine, Google’s cloud platform for geospatial analysis. To add animated Timelapse imagery to Google Earth, we gathered more than 24 million satellite images from 1984 to 2020, representing quadrillions of pixels. It took more than two million processing hours across thousands of machines in Google Cloud to compile 20 petabytes of satellite imagery into a single 4.4 terapixel-sized video mosaic—that’s the equivalent of 530,000 videos in 4K resolution!

To access the timeline, open up Google Earth on the web, click on the navigation ship’s wheel icon, and press the big “Timelapse in Google Earth” button—or just go to g.co/timelapse. With Timelapse open, you’ll get a big panel on the right side with a timeline from 1984 to today, and a few shortcuts to places Google says are particularly interesting. Google Earth Timelapse doesn’t work well across the entire world just yet. Some places, like New York City, appear hopelessly blurry, even when you set the timer to 2020. Google’s highlighted locations, like Dubai, look a lot better and play out like a game of SimCity.

Besides offering a fun, new feature in Google Earth, Google is pitching Timelapse as a teaching tool for climate change. If you want this information in a more portable format than Google Earth, Google has created a big batch of Earth timelapse videos highlighting “urban expansion, mining impacts, river meandering, the growth of megacities, deforestation, and agricultural expansion.” The videos are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0, so you’re free to use them for whatever you want as long as you credit Google.

Like with New York City, there are a few holes in Google’s data right now. Objects like 3D buildings don’t show up in Timelapse mode, and it doesn’t look like the Earth geometry changes, either. This 3D time-lapse feature is a platform for the future, though, and Google says it will “update Google Earth annually with new Timelapse imagery throughout the next decade.”

Listing image by Google



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