Boys and Girls! Raise giant worlds in your basement!

Back in college lit, we studied a Ray Bradbury story called Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Basement! The premise of the story was that aliens, who could take on any form, packaged themselves as mushroom spores, then sold themselves via advertisements in kids’ magazines like Boys’ Life. When the boys ordered the mushrooms, raised them, and ate them with their families, the mushrooms could take over whoever ingested them.

I thought of this story when I saw that Google over the past several years has induced ordinary people to build a world for them–Google Earth. This is the virtual globe that Google first offered as a free software download in 2005, which it still is today (although business-oriented versions Google Earth Pro and Google Earth Enterprise cost some serious money).

Google Earth–like any other social network these days–has been busy harvesting its customers as product. Dangling the lure of free software, Google Earth has enticed people with time on their hands, and an unfulfilled creative urge, to start building houses, parks, trees, water features, bridges, buildings, castles, and every kind of world landmark–all modeled in exquisite texture, size, and scale to match real world counterparts. Your grocery store clerk is probably spending his evenings modeling a 3D masterpiece for Google Earth. Right under our noses, Google is populating its virtual world–and getting us to do it!

Linden Lab’s got nothing on Google . . .

When I first began hanging out in Second Life years ago, I marveled at Linden Lab’s ability to somehow convince a bunch of hugely talented people to spend untold hours building a world that Linden would profit from. More amazing, Linden actually noodled these same people into paying for the opportunity to do so! Even now that I’m a serious Second Lifer, I still marvel over Linden’s ability to crowdsource the building of a world.

But I’ve got to say, the Lindens have got nothing on Google. Not only is Google crowdsourcing the building of a world, they’ve got people building it to spec! Google has actually succeeded in getting people to make a 3D model of any building or structure in their neighborhood (using, you guessed it, the free Google programs Sketchup or Building Maker) and then submit the model to Google for approval. Being Google, they have also issued a 13-point set of guidelines for approval, diagrams of the submission process, modeling tutorials (beginning and advanced), a youtube channel (150 videos), a help forum,  a blog, and of course a community.

Google Earth model of the Golden Gate Bridge

Running the Google gauntlet . . .

Once your 3D model successfully runs the gauntlet of Google’s 13-point acceptance criteria (completely revamped a month ago), your building/structure gets inserted into Google Earth, and you get the bragging rights about being the builder of a new world. Also, your name, webpage, and description appears alongside your 3D model in Google’s free online repository, the 3D Warehouse, where other 3D builders share, store, and collaborate their work. You might even get featured in the Gallery under the “Newest” and “Hottest.”

Down the red carpet at the Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards, via Google Earth

Google Earth snuck up on me

I’ve got to admit, Google Earth kind of snuck up on me. They’re already up to version 6! I knew the worker bees were busy building Google Earth–I just didn’t realize those bees were us–and I certainly didn’t realize how enormous the thing had become. Desktop, web, mobile, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch apps, plug-ins … 50 languages … 600 MILLION users, according to Google Earth’s official vid! It used to be there were only a few places where 3D could go; now it’s almost everywhere … well, maybe there’s still some 2D places left in Google Earth in the middle of Antarctica or somewhere.

Take a look at Google’s showcase for the hot spots–you’ll find Mars, the Moon, the Sky, and the Ocean. Yikes! And check out Google Earth’s home page teaser“New! Rome in 3D. Explore the Colosseum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican and more.” Google’s even got the jump on time travel, which Google Earth quaintly calls Historical Imagery: “Travel back in time with Google Earth.” Google is thorough, if nothing else.

Why would anyone build a world for Google?

All of this begs the question: Why would anyone want to spend their time building a world for Google? Jump around Google Earth’s various promo pages, and you’ll find the answer: carefully crafted Google-speak appealing to the virtual superhero in you (an eerie echo of the mushroom alien ads in the Bradbury story …”Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Basement!” ):

  • New! Learn how to create and add 3D models to Google Earth for all the world to see!” (from the Google Earth home page)
  • “Now! Fly anywhere to see satellite imagery, 3D buildings, 3D trees, terrain, Street View, planets–and much more.” (from the Google Earth Products Overview page)
  • “Hold the world in the palm of your hand … fly to far corners of the planet with just the swipe of a finger.” (from the iTunes app page)
  • “… explore your childhood home, visit distant lands or scope out your next vacation spot …” (from Google Earth and Maps Team blog introducing Google Earth 6)
  • The Heroes of Google Earth, a showcase of the people who have “used Google Earth as a tool to help them change the world.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not totally opposed to Google Earth. That would be a little like opposing the tides or the wind at this point. Besides, there are some truly cool and funny ways to use Google Sketchup. See this video for inspiration (and a laugh).

My main problem with Google Earth and its offspring …

My main problem with Google Earth and its offspring is that I keep hearing the echo of those propagating mushroom aliens from the Ray Bradbury story. Here’s why.

In order to use Google Earth at all, you have to first accept Google’s privacy policies, which we all know are pretty scary. (Brief summary: “We may use the information we collect to: (1) Provide, maintain, protect, and improve our services (including advertising services) and develop new services; and (2) protect the rights or property of Google or our users.”) No doubt about who Google is protecting with its privacy policies. Hint: It ain’t you, babe.

But even worse, to use Google Earth at all, you have to allow Google to automatically update “any Google software on your computer” in the background. And if you happen to forget this tiny requirement, the popup box when you try to run Google Earth will halt the program and issue this terse reminder: “… To continue using Google Earth, you must accept the new Google privacy policies and allow Google Software Update to run in the background on your computer.”


Eep! I don’t allow any company to run its software “in the background” on my computer, since most politely allow a manual download. Updates break things. Always. I don’t like being a guinea pig tester for new software. And, besides, Google is the last outfit I want sniffing around in my background. It’s not by coincidence that they are located next to an airfield used by the military and have key federal contracts. Who knows what they’re doing, why, when, how or . . . did I mention what??? What exactly is it Google wants to do in my computer’s background?

Now it’s true you can run Google Earth as a plug-in in your browser or an app on your phone without Google Software Update running in the background. But if you want to use the fancy desktop version of Google Earth, it comes with Google’s Goon Squad.

If we build it, they will come …

Google Sketchup has virtual shelves full of “dynamic components” to help you build your 3D models. And on one of those shelves is … drum roll here … People (aka avatars). There are only three people offered so far from Sketchup (although contributors have added others here). But two of them have names already–Sang and Nancy. And you know what happens once you name something. And no, they don’t walk, and they don’t talk … yet.

But they will. Animation is coming to Google Earth. In fact, it’s already here, in the spore stage (oops! Freudian slip intended). The Sketchup blog devoted a whole post yesterday to the Shaderlight rendering and animation tool made by “our friends across the pond.” Animation doesn’t mean exactly the same thing in Sketchup as it does in Second Life; it’s more perspective that moves in Sketchup, rather than people. So far …

But hey, it takes awhile to get things moving. First you have to build them. And it takes awhile to build a whole Second Earth. (OMG! Did that name actually slip off my tongue???) Take a look at this vid on Tiger Glen Garden to see the state of animation already in Sketchup. Even I have to say it’s beautiful.

Oh yes, the avatars will come. If we build it, they will come. They might even be us.

Google Earth will become Earth’s alt

My prediction is that Google Earth will become Earth’s alt. Everyone will have an avatar there within a year or so. Your postman will deliver your mail there. Why bother with a real-world route? Who gets snail mail anymore anyway? Your avatar will do your errands at the bank, school, grocery store, and dry cleaners. Free up tons of time for you to …  wander around Google Earth? Not worry about disease or war or bioterrorism? The real world will exist mostly for deliveries. And Second Life? Just a quaint playground in an historical walled garden, perhaps part of Google’s “Historical Imagery” accessible through the Google Earth Time Travel Service.

Taking realism to the next level

It’s important to keep in mind that Google Earth is not a Second anything. It’s our Real Life, or Google’s replica of it anyway. The Google Earth and Maps Team said it best on its blog when Google Earth 6 was released in November: “We’re taking realism in the virtual globe to the next level.” Taking realism to the next level??? Eep … again.

Isn’t there something a little creepy about Google putting its name as an adjective in front of the word Earth? Every time I look at the Google Earth URL (www.google.com/earth), I get chills up my spine. It’s almost as if “earth” is a domain of Google. And pretty soon Google will probably shorten the name Google Earth to just Earth. It won’t need the Google modifier anymore. It’ll just be understood that the Earth belongs to Google.

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