Google Earth VR enables users to teleport virtually anywhere in the world. The free desktop application, which works with an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset, compiles satellite and aerial imagery to reconstruct a simulated globe that is rendered from the user’s point of view. Users can explore any major city, rural outpost, or childhood home. Since its debut in late 2016, the app has been downloaded more than 900,000 times. It’s also gotten faster and received two important upgrades: Users can now search by place name or address and use Street Views to explore 360-degree photos at ground level—or even under water in some spots. The experience can be so profound that researchers at Simon Fraser University’s iSpace Lab are using Earth VR to study what astronauts call the “overview effect”: people being awestruck after encountering a new perspective on the planet. “I never strived to make people cry,” says product manager Joanna Kim. “But if they’re crying because they just feel so overwhelmed with the beauty of the earth or a beautiful memory, then I think that is a success.”
To counter simulator sickness, which often plagues users flying around virtual worlds, the Earth VR team created a new perspective dubbed “tunnel vision”: Anything outside a central, circular field of view appears gray and blurry. A horizon line in the distance helps maintain bearings. Some smaller cities and regions have yet to be densely mapped: Google hopes users will help by submitting their own 360 photos through Street View.
Google is a winner, finalist and honorable mention in the 2018 Innovation By Design Awards. Check out all the honorees here.