It will sneak up like a thief in the night. Most people will hardly notice. Google Earth is going away and being replaced by an open-source project called Cesium.
Google Earth changed the way our Earth was viewed forever, but its keeper, Google, caters primarily to consumer advertising. Once a product is past its usefulness in that vein, it is dropped. While Google themselves will say that Google Earth still lives, you’ll notice that you haven’t seen it embedded in websites much in the past year, and it will disappear from Chrome, along with other NPAPI plugins, in December of 2015.
While Google has dropped the ball on full 3D, round-Earth web mapping, Cesium is stepping in to fill the void. Google may be satisfied with the expedient of flat representations of our glorious globe, but Cesium is not.
Here at PetroDE, we’ve had to scramble off the Google Earth plugin with just a few months’ warning — an achievement that makes me very proud of our team. Since Cesium wasn’t quite ready when the demise of Google Earth became imminent, we’ve shifted to a flat web Mercator mapping system called OpenLayers3. This works fine for most of our clients who are doing analytics, but for those who care about a realistic representation of our world, it is a shame to have only that 2D representation available. We plan to be back on a globe once Cesium is tightly integrated into OpenLayers3, a project well underway.
Why is a 3D globe important? Well, the Earth is a spheroid, so any flat map of it loses this key quality. Lines drawn from Point A to Point B aren’t great circles that are the actual closest paths between two points on a sphere. People working near the poles notice the effect most dramatically, with Mercator projections blowing up Alaska, Greenland and other such areas beyond recognition.
A 3D globe helps us to see the important proximity of, say, the US to Russia —something that is easy to miss on a flat map. You just don’t see that over-the-pole view that indicates the proximity of Asia, Europe, and North America.
Buckminster Fuller created some large 3D spheres that he called Geoscopes. He envisioned representing patterns of movement in flashing lights on these spheres, so that people could better see invisible patterns and plan activities in a greater magnitude that ever before. In his book Critical Path, he wrote, “Time-lapse images projected onto the Geoscope will display in a matter of minutes all sorts of global, long-term trends, everything from continental drift to human migration to use of transportation.”
Google Earth brought the Geoscope to virtual life, and here at PetroDE that vision propels us. We’ve moved to 2D for now, but we’ll be back!