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Find your home on the Net

Nilanjana S Roy | September 12, 2005

Peter starts this off. 'I can see the creek near Vashi,' he SMSes. Two seconds later, he's pulled out and he's exploring the rest of India. I'm busy, too.

I've just finished zooming in on the hospital where I was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and now I'm hovering over Chile, after stopping by New York and locating restaurants in the neighbourhood where my kid brother stays.

The Net releases cool new stuff every day. Some of it is forgotten in a week; once in a while, there's a killer app (Hotmail, Gmail, Skype, Blogger) that becomes part of your everyday normal routine. But until Google Earth and Microsoft's me-too Virtual Earth, I'd never fallen in love with an exe file.

The concept behind Google Earth and Virtual Earth is deceptively simple: as Google says, this is a '3D interface to the planet', built up from satellite imagery, existing maps, image overlays and 3D models.

Users and surfers add value in the same way as you do on a Wiki page or an old-fashioned bulletin board, by putting up information in virtual Post-Its. (One enterprising soul in Noida added his bit to the mapping of the world with a tag that takes you to 'Guggi Mamaji's house'.)

Google launched Google Earth two months ago, as a free download with an optional paid service for high-end corporate users. Microsoft's Virtual Earth is a browser-based offering. Both are easy to use, with Google Earth scoring on several fronts: it has the cooler interface, it's easily edited by users, and it was first off the mark when the Katrina disaster happened.

Google Earth moved quickly to provide images and image overlays of the scale of the disaster, and several blogs and networks combined resources to provide key information, up-to-date maps and tracked changes to the hurricane-hit areas in real time.

Virtual Earth offers one killer service that Google Earth doesn't: it can pinpoint your mobile location for you. It also has easier-to-access layers of information. But it feels clunky compared to Google Earth, and more closed. Virtual Earth is still like flipping through the pages of an online atlas. But Google Earth is like being in a virtual, 3D globe, and draws users in easily into being part of the system.

It would be a mistake to write off these applications as just cool, fun stuff, even though using them brings back some of the old thrill of online gaming and the early rush of virtual reality landscapes.

After I've dreamily plotted an imaginary tour of all the homes of my favourite writers --this goes from Chile to Argentina via Nigeria, New Zealand, the American South all the way across to Sri Lanka, Iceland and Norway -- it's time to put both mapping systems through their paces.

If you want to check flight paths, browse neighbourhoods in advance and get a feel of the geography of a place, Google Earth is your baby. It has layered information in terms of locating everything from restaurants to pharmacies and monuments -- the London map will even show you the location of the suicide bombing blasts, for instance.

Virtual Earth has a more executive, conventional feel to it and is particularly strong on US locations and US information. But while it lacks Google's wow factor, it's probably easier to use for Net neophytes. MSN's local search is much easier to use than Google Earth's slightly confusing menu. But Google Earth's strengths show up in the community area.

Meanwhile, I'm checking out Google Moon, a cute tribute to the anniversary of the moon landing. A hint -- if you zoom in close enough, you'll get to see what the moon is really made of. After more than a month of playing around with Google Earth, I finally have an answer to Hemingway's question. Did the earth move for you today? Oh, yes. And how.

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