In this article, our Content Strategist, Michele Baker, takes an intriguing look at Google Earth VR, and where this technology sits in the context of a lot of the thinking going on over in Silicon Valley.
Trust Google to produce the most ultimate VR experience to date.
On 16th November, Google’s Geo team launched Google Earth VR, in a surprise move which has had jaws dropping across the VR world.
Since it began ten years ago, Google Earth has had over 2 billion downloads. It has allowed people across the globe to explore the world from the screen of their computer and smartphone. Now, as virtual reality technology gains momentum, it’s time for the inevitable next incarnation.
Google Earth VR has chosen the HTC Vive as its start-out platform, where it’s available for free via the Steam store. HTC Vive’s VR hardware is perhaps the best out there at the moment. Compared with its main rival, the Oculus Rift, the Vive is a bit more of a liberating VR experience. Whilst on the Oculus you can sit around in virtual reality, Vive lets you actually walk around. And with that freedom of movement, it’s probably the best way to enjoy Google Earth VR.
So what’s it like?
You begin your Google Earth VR trip from space. You look down and see the Earth below you, rotate the globe to choose your destination, then soar in.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s you, and all your childhood dreams have just come true.
Press a button and select one of the suggested notable places to visit, and zoom through the sky on your way there. See the cities and countryside stretching out below you. Famous monuments, buildings and wonders of the world whizz by beneath you. You take a detour, swooping down to circle the Eiffel Tower, on your way to your first home, where you grew up.
How things have changed since you sat gazing out of the bedroom window you are now gazing into, waiting for the tape deck of your Commodore 64 to load up Bubble Bobble in pixelated rainbows, dreaming that you were a bird. Here you are, all these years later, in a metareality, in full view of your own childhood’s mind’s eye.
“We’re truly standing on the shoulders of giants here as we develop this new platform. In a way, we’ve accidentally been developing one of the ultimate content libraries for VR without even realizing it.” – Mike Podwal, Project Manager for Google Earth VR
In the ongoing process of building and updating Google Earth, the team have – of course – been gathering untold volumes of visual data from across the globe. The task never ends, as the landscape of our planet continues to grow and develop. Each new update of Google Earth VR, therefore, will be more detailed and even more accurate, as well as continuing to improve in resolution as VR technology becomes increasingly refined.
At present, according to Podwal:
“94 percent of the world’s population is covered in this experience. 54 percent of the Earth’s land mass is covered. There are around 175 cities with full, 3D data, and over 600 ‘urban cores’ as well.”
These numbers actually seem a bit humble, but bear in mind that this is the first generation of Google Earth VR. It won’t be long before 100% of the planet, in all its glory, is right there for you to fly through.
Reading the article published this week on Inverse, about Google Earth VR, one of the gushing early reviews struck me hard:
“About a year ago I was still a bit sceptical about the whole ‘we are living in a simulation’ thing. Then I started with VR- I lost my scepticism. But then – Google Earth VR. This is the definitive proof for the Matrix and that one day not to long from now we will build our own.”
Clearly, I’m not alone in seeing where this could all be heading.
Um… what is this whole ‘we are living in a simulation’ thing?
You’ve seen the Matrix, right? Well, yeah, that’s a conversation that’s been done to death. But it’s not without its basis in science theory.
The first person that comes to mind when talking about simulated metareality is Professor Nick Bostrom from the University of Oxford, and specifically his 2003 paper, ‘Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?’
If you haven’t read Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis, and you are interested in VR, then you should probably click right through and read it now. Then come back to me.
Virtual Immortality? Really?
There are many scientists, philosophers and techno-futurists who are absolutely convinced that, at some stage in our technological evolution, we will create a fully functioning metauniverse. Furthermore, there are some, like Ray Kurzweil, who – as it happens – is Director of Engineering at Google, who believe that we will perfect technology that allows us to upload our minds into such a simulation, effectively allowing us to live forever.
During his speech at the Global Future 2045 International Congress, Kurzweil suggested that we will be able to transfer the entire human mind to a computer within forty years. The future of immortality, Kurzweil argues, could lie in avatars and virtual reality.
As an aside, this theory of immortality through mind upload, has been picked up in the latest season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (available on Netflix), in an episode named San Junipero. Here’s the closing sequence. Note the amazing shot of the robot inside the server facility:
The Consciousness Problem
Of course, the sort of technology Kurzweil imagines is not without some sticking points. Sure, we might be able to upload our minds to computers if we are able to perfect the brain mapping technology that’s taking quite a long time to develop. But the matter of consciousness is a bit of a hold-up when it comes to the possibility of an afterlife like Brooker’s San Junipero. Simply put, we don’t actually know what consciousness is yet.
Bostrum’s theory on consciousness places it precisely within the physical – that consciousness is merely a specific set of neural pathways – which would imply that it is entirely possible to replicate it:
“It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could, in principle, do the trick as well.”
If that’s the case, then there’s no reason why a virtual immortality couldn’t be possible. But we haven’t figured that out yet. Consciousness is still, essentially, a mystery. And what’s more, it’s very difficult to measure. Subjectivity is the thing – we can’t really even tell if the person sitting in front of us is actually conscious in the same way that we are. We’re socialised enough to accept as much, but who’s to say some of us are no more than automata? That’s purely speculation, of course, and conspiracy theory stuff at that.
The Future of Google Earth VR: Second Life?
But moving back to Google Earth VR. Obviously it’s just getting started, but if we postulate about where it’s going, and take Bostrum and Kurzweil’s theories in mind, could Google Earth VR evolve to be our very own San Junipero?
It’s an idea that has been the driving force behind Philip Rosedale’s entire career. Rosedale is the creator of Second Life, that ‘whatever happened to…’ game from the early 2000s. Second Life effectively failed for a few reasons: scale and latency (the lag was frustrating), and only about 40 avatars could be in one place at any time. It was also very time-consuming even to learn how to use its complex keyboard-mouse commands. But now, as cloud computing, virtual reality, and examples like Google Earth VR, come about, the world may be ready for Rosedale’s dream to finally reach fruition.
In an article with November 2016’s issue of Wired magazine, Rosedale explained that he’s now firing on all cylinders with the creation of his next simulation adventure: High Fidelity.
It runs differently to Second Life, which was run on servers owned and run by his company, Linden Lab. High Fidelity is peer to peer. By downloading its Sandbox software, Wired reports, anyone with a computer can host their own VR domain.
Rosedale envisions High Fidelity, with its software allowing vast pools of processing power to be tapped into, to be strong enough to have all the world’s internet users in-world at the same time. Rosedale’s vision could be the one that brings all these ideas and technologies about. His is an idea that seems to be fixed more in the gaming universe than the one of virtual immortality, making it a bit more like the Oasis in Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One – which, again, if you’re into VR, you ought to have read by now.
I have merely touched upon the many ideas, science and philosophies that are buzzing with the viable potential for simulated metareality, virtual immortality, and mind upload. I’ve touched on it a little bit, too, in my first Tumblr post, and I am sure I will touch upon it again. Personally, I have an inkling that Kurzweil’s ideas, combined with Rosedale’s vision, may already be in mind with the Google Geo team. I’m excited that this sort of immersive universe could be a possibility, and now Google Earth VR has launched, I am convinced that it’s not too far off.
Just to finish off, all this Google Earth VR stuff is eerily reminiscent of that famous old short story by Jean Louis Borges, about a civilisation that built a map that completely covered the surface of the Earth. I thought it was worth copying that story here:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. – Jen Louis Borges, ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1658)