It takes a lot to make my jaw drop nowadays, but Google Earth is one such thing.
First, you *need* a broadband connection. Dial-up or ISDN is simply not an option. And when you are using it, be aware that it furiously downloads data, so if you have a monthly download limit you will need to keep an eye on it.
You start with a picture of the world, in globe form. You can manually turn the globe around, and zoom in or out, or you can type in a location, and watch as you hurtle groundwards towards the location.
With most US cities, and many other cities around the world, you can zoom in to a scarily detailed level. Perhaps surprisingly, a few sensitive military areas in the UK (which are often blanked off the Ordnance Survey map) appear in full detail on Google Earth, which probably doesn't go down too well in the MoD and MI5.
Nearer home. Here's an overhead view of North Uist and, over to the right, Berneray. Yes, there are that many beaches - and that's only a small part of the local area. And yes, the sands on the beaches really are that colour.
Caveats. The level of detail is very variable. Worcester (the city I went to school in) and Bath (where I worked in UKOLN) have no detail at even medium levels of granularity. Different areas of a country have different contrasts, pertaining to the "local" batch of satellite pictures that Google uses.
Also "hotspots" are a mixed blessing. People can add a hotspot to a location, which contains a little note (for example, a link to a webcam for that location). Some of these are good and add value. Many, however, are a pain in the butt, of variable quality and cluttering up the screen. Unfortunately, someone in Starbucks seems to have thought it was a good idea to note the location of every branch in certain cities, which can create a devastatingly large number of entries. Some quality and editorial control is obviously required.
However, these are minor gripes. Overall, the system is stunning. This morning, I zoomed in on the hotel I stayed in in San Francisco, right down to the clearly identifiable window of the room I stayed in. I then moved north a bit, then followed the tramline along California Street eastward until I came to a cable car. From there, I hopped over to the Golden Gate bridge, the detail on which was scarcely belieable. From there, we hopped to other cities we've been to (Stockholm, Lisbon and Madrid were most impressive), the huge level of detail being a strong aide memoire to previous holidays.
And, the icing on the cake. You can "tilt" the view so you are looking at an angle. Plus, it's easy to move at a constant speed, thus enabling you to do flyovers. In this screenshot, I'm doing a fly over the Outer Hebrides. There's Berneray, nearest to us with the causeway connecting it to North Uist. In the distance over the Sound of Harris are the various beaches on the west coast of Harris.
What happens if/when Google manage to get high resolution maps of everywhere? Combine this with high speed wireless networking, and you've got an atlas accessible through whatever mobile device is the flavour of the month? Perhaps this is a battle on the horizon, in a similar way to how Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia seem to be engaged in low-level "quality and comprehensiveness" tussle.
As a final point; back to that fly-through. This is something that the tourist board here could and should capitalise on. Want to see how beach-oriented the Outer Hebrides are?
- start at Castlebay in Barra, Scotland
- tilt the map so you are looking roughly north
- zoom back out so you are at between 7 and 10 thousand feet up
- tootle over Barra and follow the beaches of the Uists and Harris north
- book your ticket online and check out some of those beaches for yourself...