Google Earth Co-Founder speaks

Mark Aubin, the co-founder of Keyhole (the predessor to Google Earth), is in Birmingham, Alabama today speaking at the AITA Annual Spring Conference.  I live blogged this from the back of the room… 🙂

 Trying to sell high-end Silicon Graphics hardware, the founders created the application “space-to-your-face” software.  Spin the globe and fly to a specific location on earth.  Then, ultimately fly to the Matterhorn, finding someone with a Nintendo 64 in a backpack hiking up the mountain, and then entering the game system and find the graphics chip with a logo of the earth (which would allow the viewer to start right where he started).  Named “SGI RealityCenter” and served as a demo platform.

While demoing the software to student groups, he realized it would be great for others to be able to see this type of technology and not just limit it to visitors to the demo center.

The world was changing at the time… Space Imaging launched IKONOS in September 1999.  Digital Globe launched Quickbird in October 2001.  Meanwhile, inexpensive 3D graphics cards emerged for the PC from vendors such as Nvidia, AIT, and Matrox.  Keyhole was launched as a consumer product, giving it away to the world, and make money on advertising.  The dot-bomb hit and the company never received funding to support that model, so the company changed gears and focused on commercial applications.  The team of five spun out from Intrinsic Graphics and officially launched their company, moving everything they owned in a single moving van.

Publicity started in 2002 with exposure by CBS News to show where things were happening in Afghanistan post-9/11.  Then, CNN used the images in their coverage of the Iraq offensive, putting “ digital globe” on the screen whenever the images were used.

In early 2004, Google approached the company.  In a press release issued in October of that year, Google made the following statement:

“This acquisition gives Google users a powerful new search too, enabling users to view 3D images of any place on earth as well as tap a rich database of roads, businesses and many other points of interest.  Keyhole is a valuable addition to Google’s efforts to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

The team expanded from 30 to over 100 in the geo-team alone.  The price was dropped from $60 to $30 and eventually made free.  Everyone loves Google Earth… with 200,000,000 users they would be the 5th most populous nation in the earth.

Imagery data is updated at least every 3 years.  Mostly, it’s based on the currency of data.  For instance, Las Vegas is updated about every 6 months and the Bay Area is annually.

Google doesn’t blur data itself, but data providers may “down res” certain areas.  For instance, the USGS blurred data around the White House.  So, Google went out and found other sources of data to substitute in that area.  KML allows users to add their own data on top of the Google Earth layers.  There’s even a “time slider” option in KML allowing users to create a “time machine” using Google Earth.

Letting users provide their own content has proven to be one of the best things to come of the platform for sharing content.  Scaling with customer-input is far better than relying employee-driven data.

The highest resolution data within Google Earth is in Africa where the company received extremely high resolution photographs.  The images have been rectified to fit over the satellite data.

The moon made of cheese was an idea of one of the early engineers outside of the Google Earth team.  It was a fun project (“prank”) to launch on the guy’s birthday.

Expansion of the Google Earth will be through user-generated data.  For instance, tying into SketchUp (recently acquired by Google) allows users to generate 3D models of college campus or even entire cities.

Check out Google Earth at is the online Google Earth community.


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