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‘Google Earth VR’ Launches For Free To Let You Fly Around The World

by Joe Durbin • November 16th, 2016
Google Earth Team: 'We've accidentally been developing one of the ultimate content libraries for VR without even realizing it.'

Looking down on the brilliant orange seats, and crisp green grass below me, two thoughts fight for dominance in my skull. The first is concerning all of the terrible losses that have taken place in this stadium throughout a truly depressing season, and the second is how unbelievable it is to be standing on top of First Energy Field. I grin for a moment thinking how much a seat like this would cost me in the real world before turning away from one of my childhood haunts and flinging myself into the sky and soaring between the familiar grey and brown buildings of Cleveland.

I haven’t seen my hometown in almost a year but even the pull of nostalgia isn’t enough to keep me entertained forever. In the blink of an eye the world around me dissolves and the restaurants of East Fourth Street are replaced by the brilliant purple face of Japan’s Mt. Fuji. I aim for the lid of the famous mountain’s bowl-shaped depression and land smoothly on the craggy ground. Turning slowly I can almost feel the wind in my hair but I know that couldn’t be possible. This is not the real Mt. Fuji. This is Google Earth VR. And I never, ever want to leave.

Our Virtual World

Google Earth VR is a surprise project from Google’s Geo team that is being both announced and released today. This is the team behind Google Maps and the original Google Earth. The group has spent the better part of a decade collecting and cataloging an obscene amount of visual data from all over the planet. Now, all of that information is being used to create a VR experience that can take you almost anywhere on Earth you want to go.

According to Mike Podwal, project manager for Google Earth VR, “94 percent of the world’s population is covered in this experience. 54 percent of the Earth’s land mass is covered. There are around 175 cities with full, 3D data, and over 600 ‘urban cores’ as well.” Google Earth turns all of this data into completely explorable, scalable 3D immersive worlds for the HTC Vive VR headset.

As an explorer, you begin your journey looking at the Earth from space. From there you can rotate the globe and choose where to begin zooming in. I choose Africa and within minutes I am hovering a few hundred feet off the ground of a barren desert. With the press of a button I pull up the menu and choose Manhattan from a list of notable places. In a second I am miles above the city, and by pointing my Vive controller this way or that and clicking the pad with my thumb, I soar anywhere I choose in the bustling virtual metropolis.


Google Earth VR’s primary locomotion system is flight. Podwal explained that his team didn’t feel that the standard locomotion systems of teleportation or joystick walking would work for this particular project. They want you to feel and remember the journeys you take as you devour every corner of the places you are exploring. Initially, the experience gives you a comfort mode in which your FOV is narrowed as you fly to reduce simulator sickness. This can be disabled in the options menu for those that prefer more uninhibited traversal.

Freedom is what makes Google Earth VR such a truly powerful experience. Yes the visuals still need updating — when you fly all the way down to “human scale” things tend to take on a bit of a Nintendo 64 aesthetic — but that limitation pales in comparison to the sheer possibility of this platform.


For example, at one point I landed on the roof of some random building in New Jersey. It was ugly and completely forgettable. But it was here. It existed in the real world and I could go to it in this virtual one. The one-to-one representation made possible by year after year of Google’s continuous visual data gathering has now led to the most incredible map mankind has ever seen.

Google Earth VR does not require an army of animators to build each building in San Francisco through Unity or Unreal Engine 4, it is fueled by an always refreshing data set from one of the world’s most powerful sources of geographical information. That type of power makes the full implications of Google Earth VR truly staggering.

According to Dominik Kaeser, the project’s engineering lead, Google Earth VR began four years ago as a “20 percent project.” Google encourages its employees to spend 20 percent of their time at work on outside projects that could help extend the company’s steadily widening portfolio of products. Kaeser was on the Geo team at the time and realized that the data his group was amassing could combine with VR into something truly special. 

Podwal agrees wholeheartedly with that sentiment stating that, “We’re truly standing on the shoulders of giants here as we develop this new platform. In a way, we’ve accidentally been developing one of the ultimate content libraries for VR without even realizing it.”


Google Earth VR now has its own team that works with Clay Bavor’s Google VR squadron as well as the remaining Geo team members. Podwal explained that this newly minted group will be working consistently to add new features, increase the visual fidelity and expand the already massive world.

Google Earth VR is like nothing else available today. the scope and overall philosophy are one of the VR scene’s first truly immersive spaces. There is always a game to play or a movie to watch inside a VR headset, but there are very few places at this point to simply be. Google Earth VR is one of the first and, so far, it is definitely the best.

The app is available now for free on the HTC Vive. When asked about support for other platforms, such as the Oculus Rift, Podwal stated that the team was actively looking into ports but had nothing to announce.


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What's your reaction?
  • Mike

    Say it isn’t true! I’m so ready to fly around like Superman. I’m pretty jealous of Vive users right now.

    • LaRocky

      It should work fine on the Rift when Touch gets released, you’ll just have to launch it from SteamVR until they add it to Oculus Home.

      • Mike

        I’ll keep my fingers crossed and my cape on just in case 🙂

      • Intheuk

        Doesn’t work with Touch, super sad 🙁 Seems it’s hard coded for the Vive only for now.

        • LaRocky

          That’s odd. Isn’t the complaint from Vive users that VR shouldn’t have exclusives?

          • hyperseven

            Its up to Google what they choose to do with their IP.

          • random_name

            Yes. I’m a Vive owner and say this should have Oculus support. But that is up to Google. Apparently there is a rift between Google and Facebook.

          • Schorsch

            Quack. The reason is SIMPLE that currently no “normal” person who has a Rift has Touch, because Touch comes out in December. And Google LIKELY didn’t want to code something in there which goes against their philosophy/intuitive use (with a stupid Xbox controller)…so no point to release a “Rift version” *right now*. Then rather wait a few weeks or so and do it right, with BOTH versions having intuitive controls. And by the way, with the “hack” it DOES run on Rift and 100% compatible with razer hydra…still quirks with touch. (The maker says there may be a another check in the code disabling the Touch). Bottomline: it does work on Rift now.

          • random_name

            It works through the hacked version, not native. And you’re right, no normal person has the touch yet, only some developers do.

          • unreal_ed

            It’ll come to it (most likely). Just gotta be patient.

          • RoJoyInc

            yeah I want battlezone… and, and, and…

        • Tony

          Not possible. It’s coded for OpenVR.
          Rift has no issues running OpenVR applications.

          Look for guys playing Onward and other SteamVR games (incorrectly referred to as “Vive games”) with Touch controls – it all works just fine.

          • lemon lemonated

            Onward and other SteamVR games may work, but Google Earth VR does not. It’s Vive exclusive for now.

            The app is freaking amazing on Vive by the way. I am sure Rift owners get to play it too at some point.

          • Schorsch

            Already hacked. Check reddit. There was only one line of code querying what headset is used. They are still working on the hack, doesn’t work 100% with Touch yet.

        • Ned Hoon

          Reality Check VR channel on youtube has videos of this working fine with Touch and Rift it needs the revive hack is all no big deal.Once Touch is released it wont take google long to patch it into Oculus Home.

  • Graham J ⭐️

    aww man I cannot wait to get home. I’ve been shouting about the need for this since my Gear VR days.

    • Harley Davis

      Hey Graham, fancy seeing you here ol’ friend!

      • Graham J ⭐️

        haha hey!

  • Doctor Bambi

    This could easily be the perfect app to show family when they come visit, but I feel like the applications don’t just stop at sightseeing. It would be cool if someday it could integrate with your GPS signal, and when you need to figure out directions, the passenger could slip on a Daydream View headset and get a bird’s eye view of your surroundings while you drive. They could spot out restaurants or gas stations, or maybe even get info on traffic and storm fronts.

    • Ned Hoon

      By the time we get to that stage our cars will be driving themselves and all you will have to do is ask it for whatever you need.You will probably even be able to place orders for whatever you require (Pizza whatever) so by the time you car gets you there your order is ready for you.Certainly doable the way tech is going.

  • Kevin Walker

    Joe, is this the project you couldn’t talk about on last weeks live stream??? This looks awesome. Do the details take a few seconds to load when you zoom in for the first time, like they do in the standard Earth app, or is nice and smooth.

  • Bibelo

    Please add social to that and it’ll be awesome

    • punchl

      Please bring this to PSVR and Google Daydream ..
      This is the killer app that makes me know that VR is actually here to stay this time around

      • Ned Hoon

        I suppose that will be up to Sony as far as PSVR is concerned and they dont have a great history of playing with others.Hope they come around tho everyone should have access to this one.

  • Flying over and through my home city of Boston almost made me cry. Standing at the top of the Matterhorn and looking down at the valley below gave me shivers. For a moment, I truly felt like I was standing on top of Half Dome.

    This is one of the best experiences in virtual reality, period.

    Please, Google: add support for the Oculus Rift and Touch controllers! I don’t want to only be able to try this at work. I want to share this with everybody.

  • Hi69

    Vive only, no Rift confirmed. Why THE FUCK would do they do that?

    • Tonelowke

      Google doesn’t want to support Facebook. Or were you being sarcastic?

      • Christopher Modiano

        10/10 for condescending.

    • Thong Phan

      If you listen to the podcast over at Road to VR, the engineers noted that the ability to walk around and change scale was one of the key things they worked on. It really helps with the sense of place and immersion (yes, Rift can do ‘roomscale’ too, but Vive was ready at the time of development). They also focused to just get it running first, and there is still a ton more to do so single platform for now.

    • Ned Hoon

      Seen videos on youtube of it working seamlessly with Rift and Touch you just need that hack at the moment.That will change once Touch is released.

    • RoJoyInc

      most popular headset first? I’m sure it’s in the works for Rift.

  • Tyler Smith

    Wow…just wow! I will be up all night!

  • Amánda Koster


    • wij

      It’s free 😉

  • Yes! Yes! Effing, YES!!!!!!! …NOW I have the PERFECT reason to get a VR headset!!!!!!!!!!!

  • user

    it will be even more interesting when they use the new footage from google’s satellites.

  • Just spent about one hour in it and wow, just WOW – hands down the best VR experience so far. THANK YOU GOOGLE!

  • Captain Zhu

    Amazing! looking forward have one.

  • Schorsch

    There is already a hack out so it works for Rift, but control is awkward via keyboard. (Hack came out 8 hrs after Google released it, search for it on reddit). Doesn’t seem to be 100% compatible with Touch (yet), but someone reported 100% compatible with razer hydra/Rift.

  • Fab Z

    We need this on PSVR as well.

    • David Lazarek

      Yes, yes we do! 🙂

  • Have only Oculus and can’t try it… damn! Anyway… locomotion system is not optimal for VR… doesn’t it give you motion sickness?

    • RoJoyInc

      NO- no motion sickness AT ALL. control is intuitive – I never have to think about it. There is not one thing I’d change.

    • Brandon

      There is a simple patch that works great for the Rift with Touch controllers.

  • Alvin Wang Graylin

    Can’t wait for Google to create an open API for third party Devs to create games/experiences inside/on top of Google Earth VR… that will make Pokémon Go feel so archaic. Having a real full-scale accurate 3D world to build any app on will unleash the next gen Killer VR apps we’ve all been waiting for!

    • Riccardo Brunello

      yea I’m working on virtual reality in room-scale and wondered GTA 6 in VR and real world maps…..

  • Walter M

    Would’ve welcomed the same for Moon and Mars.

  • RoJoyInc

    one of the primary reasons to buy into VR. This is amazing. Educational, entertaining and most amazingly – free Thank you Google. (part of why I’ve resisted BING for years). Google is great.

  • Trooper

    Google Earth VR has definitely started off really well but it does need a little polish and the ability to recognise 7.1 surround sound devices as I have to completely disable my sound to get it to launch. The textures on the buildings and trees also need a lot of work but if you compare how the normal Google earth is now to how it started you will get a feeling that the VR version will be a brilliant experience in the future and an app that setts the standard for future developers to aspire to.