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21st Century Armchair Travel with Google Earth

Armchair travel enters the 21st century: Plan a new trip or reminisce about an old one using this application for your computer.

"TRAVEL IS GLAMOROUS ONLY IN RETROSPECT," wrote Paul Theroux, traveler and author. Add “and in anticipation” as well. It’s fun to leaf through stacks of photos and reminisce about this piazza or that little souk, or to fantasize about jumping our ruts and jetting off to new places, foreign or domestic. It’s the traveling itself that can be more trying—inedible meals in the wrong part of town, traffic jams through bland suburbs, endless delays in soulless airports. After all, the English word travel derives from the Old French travail, or suffering, a word itself that comes from the name of a Roman instrument of torture. Travel can torment. Which helps in part to explain the venerable appeal of armchair travel.

And now the Internet, which has brought relief to actual travel (think online ticketing or printing your own advance boarding passes), brings remarkable change to the armchair traveler in the form of the free software application Google Earth. This product of Internet search behemoth Google may not replace the pleasures of actually being there, wherever you fancy there to be, but it brings fun and play back to world exploration and could dramatically change your approach to travel, both armchair and actual.

Google calls its application a “geographical browser,” allowing users to search the planet as they now search the Web, and over 400 million users worldwide have taken it for a spin since it was launched in 2005. To get started, download the software from Google Earth. You will need a reasonably capable computer and a high-speed Internet connection; the program works by fetching massive amounts of data on demand rather than storing data on your hard drive.

Google Earth starts up showing the classic “blue marble” view of our planet from about 25,000 kilometers in space. A search bar invites: “Fly to:” with space where you can type in the name of a country, city, landmark, or simply geographic coordinates. With a quick zooming animation, you are whisked to wherever on the planet you requested. Type another name and the image swoops out, like a fast rocket and back in to the new location.

A “flight” from Topeka to Timbuktu takes 10 seconds. Zoom your viewpoint down to about 300 meters in altitude over Timbuktu, and you’ll see the crazy quilt of streets in the old quarter and the regular blocks of buildings in other neighborhoods. Because of the high quality aerial and satellite photography of much of the world, you can see buildings, cars, and even shadows of people. Scroll around the screen, and the countryside surrounding the city comes into focus. Zoom back out to a higher elevation and see miles and miles of terrain.

Google Earth was designed from the beginning to be open to people and organizations to add their own information on top of this detailed bird's-eye view. And they have, to a stunning degree, creating a hugely rich environment for exploration and education. Here's how it works.

What You Can See. On the left side of the Google Earth window is a panel called Layers. Turning on a particular layer reveals information—national boundaries or highways, for instance—that is “layered” over the basic globe. One popular layer—Panoramio—accesses tens of thousands of scenic photos covering nearly everywhere a camera has gone. Any photos originally tagged in the camera with Global Positioning System (GPS) data can be matched with the exact spot where the photo was taken. Disappointed that rain spoiled your dream shot of the Taj Mahal? Go to the Taj and click on one of the blue squares. A pop-up window will open with a photo taken from that spot. Many of the images are tourist snapshots, but many more are professional shots using exotic equipment such as panoramic cameras. A click on the image switches to a web browser, where the image loads in higher detail.

Trip-Planning Tool, Too. Depending on your travel philosophy, the number of blue squares in an area can help you to get on or off the beaten track. The blue squares crowd the popular tourist spots (the Eiffel Tower sports a remarkable number) and thin out substantially in less-traveled areas.Google Earth also displays more mundane and useful travel data, such as the traffic (which, as I write, is moving nicely on the Lakeshore in Chicago and at a dead stop in the southern suburbs of Paris) and the weather. Google has surveyed a growing number of world cities with specially equipped cars that roam the highway taking panoramic photos every few yards. Turn on the Street View layer and travel the streets of Paris, London, Rome, or New York. Check the view from the front door of that little hotel you’re thinking of booking into to make sure it’s as charming as advertised. Is that a lovely stream across the way, or a factory parking lot?

Like Really Being There. At the bottom of the Layers panel is a choice labeled Terrain.Google Earth allows you to tilt and pan your point of view, which in normal view gives you a fuzzy, flat view of the surface of the map. Turn on Terrain and it pulls in data that simulates vertical elevation. While there may be distortions in detail owing to the flat photograph being stretched over mountain shapes, the results can be spectacular. Flying through Yosemite Valley in California or the Himalayas gave me an evocative sense of the space in both places. The Flatirons west of Boulder, CO, resemble a 3-D photograph that you can fly around in.

res quality varies greatly over the globe. Some remote areas have low resolution images, with very little detail, but Google has been investing millions of dollars to contract for the highest quality satellite imagery it can obtain. In the latest versions, you can also travel into space and under the ocean.

People’s Tours. With the highly customizable platform that Google has provided, individuals and organizations have prepared special tours for diverse interests. Here are a few:

Ecotourism and environmental activism. Google Earth Outreach gives nonprofits the tools to tell or “show” their stories in compelling ways. For instance, WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund) zooms in on projects ranging from saving the savannah in Cameroon to protecting panda habitats in China. Other organizations use the application to document and raise awareness of changes in land use, such as deforestation in the Amazon Basin, or the effects of climate change. If you’re interested, you can get information on environmental projects in an area where you plan to travel.

Sports events. I am a fan of the epic bicycle stage races of Europe, like the Tour de France, where 200 riders cycle thousands of miles in three weeks of riding. Each day’s route is available and can be “ridden” over in advance, giving a real sense of the mountain challenges the cyclists will face. I’ve also had fun following the Vendée Globe round-the-world sailing race, with GPS data tracking the positions of all the competitors.

Education. Teachers from kindergarten through college are using Google Earth as a base for a number of interesting projects in biology, history, and economics as well as the more obvious geography. One of the most ambitious projects undertaken in Google Earth  is to virtually recreate Imperial Rome as it existed in 320 AD in 3-dimensional form. The project, encompassing more than 7,000 archaeological and historic sites, was begun independently and conceived to be available only to scholars. But with backing from Google, it is now available for general public use

Literature, high and low. From the Odyssey through the travels of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta to the work of more modern writer/explorers like Paul Theroux, literature and travel have fed each other. At Google Lit Trips, a high school English teacher is assembling some fascinating literary trips, based on world literature and appropriate for grades K through college. Follow Voltaire’s Candide through Europe or Steinbeck’s Joad family across America.

Detective fiction often depends on a precise sense of place, like George Simenon’s Paris, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, or Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. I have whiled away more hours than I’d care to admit taking vicarious pleasure in seeing the actual locations of crimes and investigations in Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh.

Ancestry. The first instinct of most people when they fire up Google Earth for the first time is to look at their own home from space. But how about looking at your great-grandparents’ home? Google Earth adds a new dimension to researching and documenting ancestral roots. My wife’s grandfather grew up in a house on a large farm named Chilford Hall in Cambridgeshire, England. With the help of his daughter and the Internet, we located the house and were able to trace the paths he likely walked to school and later to work at the flour mill that still stands in the village. By entering scans of family photos into Google Earth, we have started a family history project that we can share with family members around the world.

Whether a person travels the globe or never moves more than a mile from their birthplace, we all have deep affiliations with very specific locations on the planet. Google Earth, with all its capabilities, is a powerful tool for the traveler, the would-be traveler, the armchair traveler or anyone who just wants to explore our world more deeply. It helps fulfill that human urge expressed by T.S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

Bruce Campbell has written for Scientific American Explorations, Live & Learn,andother national publications.

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