A virtual reality version of Google Earth is now available for free on the HTC Vive, letting users explore reconstructed cultural treasures, global landmarks, or (for some) their own homes in VR. Google Earth VR has been in development for some time, and it bears conceptual similarity to the version of Street View that Google released on its Cardboard and Daydream platforms. But where Street View offers strings of photospheres collected by 360-degree cameras, users of Earth VR can virtually fly freely around a topographical reconstruction of the globe, or take guided tours of places like Manhattan and Monument Valley.
For now, Earth VR is Vive-only, although VR Apps product manager Mike Podwal says Google is “actively exploring support for other platforms.” It’s the second Vive app that Google has released, after popular painting app Tilt Brush, which it acquired along with VR development studio Skillman & Hackett in 2014. And like non-VR Google Earth, it’s a little rough — many areas are just flat maps with rough topography, not fully constructed locations, and natural features like trees are blocky low-poly masses. But as virtual tourism goes, it’s a fairly grand option.
Earth VR has obvious tie-ins with other parts of Google’s virtual reality efforts. Podwal and Earth VR engineering lead Dominik Kaeser see the project as a natural complement to Street View, although its full motion controls wouldn’t yet work on a platform like Daydream. At some point, the two could seamlessly blend into each other. Earth also seems like a natural fit for Expeditions, Google’s Cardboard-based VR education initiative.
But it’s more exciting to think about what people could do with an open version of the app, or a tool like the non-VR Google Earth Tour Builder. You could embed your own stories into Google Earth, or link personal photo spheres to specific places. Businesses could offer a VR version of their neighborhood the way they might embed a Google Maps widget on their website. Even without this, it still feels like one of the biggest, most open-ended VR apps available right now.