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

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.


  1. davebo says:

    Saw the video for this last week and was very interested. I’m not jumping into VR just yet, but I fail to see why you couldn’t navigate this just as easily with a mouse and keyboard for non-VR people. I’ll stick to regular Google Earth for now.

    • FrostByghte says:

      I would urge you to try VR if you have not. Your comment reminded me of a friend that once said “I don’t understand why the mouse and keyboard is better than just the keyboard”. This was while we were playing DOOM. After this comment I ran circles around him punching him to death while he attempted to kill me with a shotgun…

    • Xzi says:

      It’s not the controls that differ so much as it is the experience itself when it comes to VR. A lot of stuff in VR can use KB/M instead of motion controls, but the motion controls instantly feel so much more intuitive in a headset.

  2. CartonofMilk says:

    put a flight simulator game on that shit.

    • Martin Carpenter says:

      Or just a walking simulator :) That’s actually the biggest thing I want from VR – virtual tourism/the options for the odd short walk without going anywhere etc.

      • ThePuzzler says:

        Walking is one of the hardest things to simulate in VR, because either you’re not walking, in which case you don’t get a sensation of walking, or you are walking, in which case you bump into a real-world desk and hurt yourself.

      • Turkey says:

        You can scoot around on ground level in Google Earth VR, but there’s a lot of data missing from that perspective, so it looks really bizarre. Lots of polygonal blobs floating around everywhere.

    • Uberwolfe says:

      Man, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted Google’s map resolution on something like Prepar3D. The problem is the inconsistency. Some areas are amazing.. others not so much and there’s no effort gone to blending between the two.

      Flying along some hi-res section and then suddenly encountering a massive tear in the scenery as you pass into a low-res section is a massive downer – especially in VR.

      • Zombievac says:

        No effort? I don’t think you’ve used Google Earth regularly since it first came out in beta. They continuously make HUGE, amazing improvements. Keep in mind how tough it is to 3D Map the entire earth with textures that need to be bigger than anything around because they have to be able to zoom in for literal miles. It’s a monumental undertaking, which would be impossible without all their innovations in automating things like this.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      Google Earth (non-VR) has a flight simulator mode, so it’s not far fetched.

    • Chaz says:

      Aerofly FS2 in VR is pretty amazing looking.

  3. Symarian says:

    Watched ManyaTrueNerd play this the other day, it looks great.

  4. mrentropy5 says:

    I’m at the point where I’m ready to take the VR plunge, but I can’t decide between the Rift or the Vive.

    • Alec Meer says:

      Honestly, wait. Now is absolutely not the time. Either we’ll get better hardware or there will be significant discounts on the existent stuff before too long.

      • Thirith says:

        I honestly doubt there’ll be better hardware any time soon, unless that wireless thing pans out (I still have doubts we’ll get there soon due to latency issues). I’m sure they could develop better screens for the headset right now, but it already takes a pretty hefty computer as it is.

        I’d be surprised if there was a significant upgrade in the screens (resolution, FOV) before, say, 2018, at which point there’ll also be better processors and graphics cards.

        I’ve got an Oculus Rift and am happy with it, but it’s very much an Early Adopter toy. I hear good things about the Vive as well, but I have no experience with it myself. I find this new frontier tremendously exciting, but it is still flawed, and there is a risk for anyone jumping onboard that they’ll be disappointed.

      • Xzi says:

        Vive is $100 off for black Friday/cyber Monday, so there’s your only shot at a “significant” discount for a while. I don’t expect the cost of Rift/Vive to permanently drop until somebody can put together a 4K headset that doesn’t cost over $1000 for materials alone.

    • Uberwolfe says:

      The Rift is the better option along with the new hand controllers. It’s a more refined headset, better visuals with a bigger library and the best brains in the business developing it.

      • Xzi says:

        I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but the truth of the matter is that your visuals will depend on your GPU. Supersampling is possible with either Rift or Vive. Rift FoV is said to be a little wider, while Vive’s FoV is said to be a little taller.

        In addition, saying the Rift has a bigger library is kind of a lie. With ReVive, Vive can play anything on the Oculus store or anything designed for Rift on Steam. The same isn’t yet true of Vive titles on Rift. Even with the Touch controllers it seems that Oculus is going for a much more limited version of room-scale for their headsets, focusing more on 180 degree experiences.

        I’d also note that Valve aren’t exactly bit players in the gaming scene, and Oculus actually sniped some of their employees to work on Rift, thus the reason there’s so little separating the HMDs now. Based on these things alone I’d definitely recommend Vive over Rift, but in the future there will surely be more parity between the two.

        • Zombievac says:

          I actually bought a Rift when pre-orders opened (and got one 6 months later)… thinking they were working on it for years, John Carmack’s genius was behind it, and they had Facebook funding them now… and VIVE seemed to be a last minute copycat.

          But so far, it’s pretty disappointing. I tried the Vive at work, and the motion controls really make the experience… plus pretty much all the worthwhile titles that could actually be called “games” used the motion controllers. Rift is better in every other way though (except the Store/Games app, which sucks and is STILL in beta – but you can use Steam too, so it’s really only a disappointing benefit, not a detriment)… but I was disappointed overall and thought I might have made the wrong choice.

          Now, the motion controllers are out, and I haven’t heard anyone say they’re not significantly better than the VIVE’s controllers. I don’t have mine yet, but it’s about to ship supposedly. Once they’re out and I have two more sensors, I can’t imagine the VIVE being the better choice at this point. There are definitely games you can’t play on VIVE even with the mods, and others that don’t work great. The headset is way heavier and less comfortable by a lot, has more cables hanging all over the place in the worst spots, and just feels rushed on the hardware end in comparison.

          So, if the motion controllers for the rift are really as good as many are saying they are, the Rift is my recommendation, for sure. Otherwise though you may want to wait a while longer, for either cheaper pricing or better games and software support – or eventually, better hardware. Both headsets have TERRIBLE lenses that really mar the visual experience a LOT in some cases, and I think they’ll likely tackle that a lot better in the next generation. Same with the “Screen door” effect, they could improve that. Finally, even if they weren’t pushing more pixels overall, the screens in both headsets are subpar in every imaginable way. The screens in both headsets look like the first LCD screens from the late 90s, back when people laughed at LCD because they sucked so bad.

          So, there are definitely improvements to be made!

    • Chaz says:

      I’d say the main decider on whether to take the plunge into VR right now is how good your hardware is. You really need a damn good PC to get the most out of it, preferably coupled with a 980ti or above in the graphics card department.

      If you have the hardware and still do want to go for it then there isn’t much to choose between each one. I have a Rift and my mate has the Vive, so I’ve used both quite a bit and can honestly say that which ever you choose you’ll be fine with. One is not sufficiently better than the other in any department to really recommend one over the other.

      The one thing I will say, is that most of the best games in VR right now that will keep your attention long term tend to be the sim like titles such as Elite Dangerous or ETS2/ATS, project cars etc. Most of the rest tends to be stuff that you won’t be playing for more than 30 minutes at a time, with a few exceptions. However the games catalogue is getting bigger and better all the time. If you’re into your sims though then you’ll have probably bought one of these already.

      My advice would be to wait until about next spring. See how the Oculus Touch controllers have fared and what new games they have brought with them and get a feel for whats upcoming. Also there’s a couple of wireless devices in the works for the Vive that will effectively un-tether it from the PC and it’ll be worth seeing how those work out too.

      For me personally, my go to VR game is Elite Dangerous. The 1-1 scale universe is just awe inspiring in VR. I finished an evenings play last night by landing on a moon at the edge of a ringed gas giant. Then I used the external camera view to position myself down on the planet surface and just spent 15 minutes sitting there chilling out to the awesome sight of this huge gas giant and it’s rings against a backdrop of the Milky Way and various nebula. You just don’t get that staring at a monitor.

  5. Eleven says:

    It is a bit blurry at close ranges, it’s true, but we’re pretty spoilt by how much Google have managed to accomplish. It does photo-realistic terrain equal to or better than most flight sims, smoothly zoomable from ground level to orbit, with dynamic time-of-day lighting, at 90fps in stereoscopic. I can’t think of a game that comes close to scaling this well. The VR UI alone is a textbook demonstration of how to do it.

    If they add just a few features from the desktop app, it could quite easily find a use in professional and academic geography. Like, viewing the 3D imagery from Street View would have so many uses, and would be tons of fun too!

    • Harlander says:

      You can already do Street View with Google Cardboard, so a port to a full-fat VR platform doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

  6. Moonracer says:

    There is a setting to allow human scale navigation, which is amazing. The low rez details are kind of charming. Hanging out in the streets of San Fransisco next to cars that have melted into the streets. Flying through alleys and finding shadow blob monsters.

    If you find yourself demoing VR to a lot of people like I do this is great. I had one friend take me to a city in Germany and show me the bush he peed on (it was in a lovely park).

  7. tixylix says:

    It sucks….

    I tried my friends vive, the thing was uncomfortable as hell and all I saw was pixels and how low resolution the screen was. I was done after 5 mins, I tried a couple things, I couldn’t walk around freely, I couldn’t simply reach out and touch things… just felt super restrictive and the quality was poor. He also put on a VR Porn thing for a laugh and not even that was fun, it just looked weird and not convincing at all.

    I just don’t understand it, I can look in much higher detail on my 5K monitor. Until I can pick stuff up and interact with everything and have proper feedback in each of my fingers, I just don’t care either. I mean I was in a cinema and I tried to reach out and touch a chair and nothing happened…


    Give it another 10 years and it might be good.

  8. TheAngriestHobo says:

    It’d be an amazing classroom tool I’m sure, though.

    Sounds totally reasonable. As we all know, schools are famously well-funded, and should have no trouble scrounging up $1200 for a geography lesson that could be taught just as easily from a normal desktop computer.

  9. Madcowe says:

    If you fancy gameising it a bit and having a race why not join the superhero racing league link to it’s a very select few at the moment, namely just me boo hoo.

  10. Shiloh says:

    If I’ve ever got half an hour to spare for Google Earth, I tend to head over to (shhh!) North Korea… from the air it’s one of the most fascinating places to visit on Earth.

    If you ever decide to take a jaunt over there, see if you can spot the runways being tunnelled into mountain sides, or the railway lines disappearing into hills and never coming out the other side, or the trench systems fortifying the massive hydroelectric dams, or the huge accumulations of military air power, or the subs surfacing on the Eastern seaboard…

  11. bill says:

    And a recent ‘flight’ over Tokyo or Hawaii is good for questioning one’s life choices as one trudges home through the November rain.

    Hawaii might be pretty cool, but feel secure in your life choices that your quality of life is probably much better than most people in Tokyo.

    And I’m not just saying that because I got woken up at 5:55am yesterday by an earthquake and then had to walk up 20 storeys to get to work because the earthquake shut down the elevators.

  12. sonofsanta says:

    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.

    Sounds like it has Norfolk rendered perfectly to me.