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Google Earth VR: A watershed moment for virtual reality

As well travelled as you may be, chances are there are still parts of the world you haven’t visited.

Now, thanks to Google, you may get the opportunity to see them all.

On Nov 15, the Silicon Valley giant launched Google Earth VR: a stunning software experience that combines Google Earth and Google Street View with the immersive real-life like qualities of virtual reality.

Using the HTC Vive – the hardware we host our own VR learning sessions on – as a controller, users can fly around cities, walk amongst mountains and explore landmarks from across the globe.

It’s been 15 years since Google Earth launched, and VR offers a natural next step for the platform. But the knock on effect for virtual reality, and VR learning, is much more important.

Here’s why.

EVERYWHERE ON EARTH

We’ve been talking about the practical learning applications for global corporates in all sectors for some time now, but the VR learning industry is still a fledgeling one, with only the earliest adopters implementing the tech in-house.

For the most part, virtual reality is still viewed as expensive, specialist technology – something for gamers to get excited about, perhaps, but not one without a practical use.

What the jaw-dropping Google Earth demo shows is that VR is more than that. There are no rings to collect, no points to earn, nothing to complete. Simply open landscapes to explore and engage with.

VR has missed that killer, popular application up til now. The familiar tool (Google Earth) coupled with bleeding edge tech could well bring virtual reality to households and users who have never engaged with it before.

A similar thing happened with Pokémon Go. Before Niantic released its record-breaking application in summer, locational and visual augmented reality was misunderstood by a lot of users.

Pokémon Go was a watershed moment for AR, bringing the experience to the masses. People didn’t need to be told how AR worked, they had downloaded the app, and could do it for themselves. Although the Pokémon Go phenomenon died out fairly quickly, the knock on effect has been startling.

In the six months since the game was launched, interest in the technology has rocketed. Volvo now use AR visualisation in their showrooms; the technology is now increasingly common in the museum and heritage sector, having demonstrated huge potential in historical settings

Google Earth comes at a time where more VR headsets are getting into more hands than ever before – the launch of PlayStation VR and Google Daydream, for instance. And when Google opens the platform up to other hardware next year, the demand is likely to grow even further.

THE GOOGLE EFFECT

Pokémon Go proved a wild success because it offered an already successful concept – Pokémon – in a new, engaging way. Google Earth does just the same.

The software is simple, useful and fun. Once expanded to include all major cities, the software will prove valuable to a wide range of businesses – not least in the tourism sector and those involved in moving goods in difficult locations.

Moreover, Google has already proved the scale of its ambition for virtual mapping – offering tours of art galleries and other interior spaces. In expanding their showcase mapping service to include VR, the tech giant is making a statement of intent for the future of the technology.

Virtual reality is poised to go global, and Google Earth could well be the program to take it there.