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Google Earth VR is a Vive must-have, but...

Google Goggles take two

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Got a Vive? Gotta have this, then. Google’s VR mod of its long-running planet-modelling app was one of the things that was shown to devs and us media types back when Valve were first demoing the Vive. It’s now finally passed on to you, the consumer and/or unwitting sharer of vast amounts of personal data, as Google Earth VR, a free download via Steam. It’s a lovely thing, allowing you to have a giant’s eye view of anywhere in the world, much of it rendered in 3D.

Clearly, visiting a blurry version of Monument Valley and looking down at its smudged textures from 100 foot above is no substitute for a real visit to canyon country, but it’s a neat shortcut for reminding oneself of the majesty of nature. And a recent ‘flight’ over Tokyo or Hawaii is good for questioning one’s life choices as one trudges home through the November rain.

Obviously, though, the first thing was find my house. I could have gone anywhere, but no, I thought REDACTED, a small and chilly terraced house in South-East England somehow held more lure than Kilimanjaro or Machu Picchu. Clearly, Google has no particular interest in that house, so its street was not as striking and careful a rendition as that big statue of wossisface on the hill outside Rio de Janeiro was.

That said, get too close to wossiface and you’ll see a grey-white blur, while the Niagra falls are a frozen wall of polygonal white rather than a breath-taking torrent. In practice, nothing looks as good as official screenshots and videos suggest, but keep your distance and you won’t mind much. This isn’t a navigational tool or even a detail tool: it’s grand-scale tourism, designed to turn the world’s greatest hits into a virtual toy.

You can stomp about the place making fee-fi-fo-fum noises if you so wish, but sadly there is a complete lack of the screechingly obvious Godzilla destruction mode that, hopefully, someone will eventually make for VR. This is strictly sight-seeing, with an effective use of VR’s 3Dness.

Although some places do lack that entirely – I’m off to an Airbnb cottage in a small town in Norfolk for Christmas, and tried to use Gearth to check we hadn’t made a terrible, terrible mistake, but all it gave me was a flap, uninspiring map I couldn’t discern anything useful from. Fair enough, it’s a tall order, and maybe one day Google’s terrifying drones will 3D map every inch of the earth.

The menus offer instant-jumping to big hitters like the Golden Gate bridge and Eiffel tower, and that’s probably the most rewarding thing to do, but it’s also worth a flyover in a nation or continent, getting a rare sense of how everything stitches together. It’s all too fast and slippy to feel like travel: this is a gigantic globe, not a journey. It’d be an amazing classroom tool I’m sure, though.

Bizarrely lacking is any kind of search function, most likely because navigating a keyboard while your eyeballs are stuck inside black tupperware is too tall an order for a great many of us. It does mean that simple navigation is harder than it needs to be, though – that globe spins on all axes, so it’s not always as obvious what you’re looking at as years of atlas-usage might make you presume. To find my house, I ended up shortcutting to Paris, then zooming out and panning across to the UK.

Not a huge problem really, because like almost any VR app there’s only so often you’re going to gun this thing up, but Gearth does feel like it could be a must-have tool with a long tail, for generations of hardware, if they stick with it.

As it is, it’ll blow the mind of anyone who is new to VR, and deservedly so. For those of us who are by now relatively accustomed to gogglevision, we’ll see the compromised visual quality and the limited interaction, and we’ll say ho-hum and make vague resolutions to look at it again another time. I suspect I will, when I see somewhere mentioned on the news or pretend I can afford a holiday somewhere interesting. It’s going to stay installed, certainly.

Can’t argue with free either, particularly at a time when many other VR companies are positively gouging customers – so the combination of no-pennies and grand sights makes this as must-have as VR currently gets. Which isn’t anything like as must-have as I’d hoped.

Google Earth VR is out now, via Steam, for free. Currently it only supports the HTC Vive, though Oculus support will hopefully follow once the Touch controllers are in the wild. It supports both standing and room-scale.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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