‘Google Earth VR’ Launches on HTC Vive, A Breathtaking New Way to Know Our Planet


Today Google launches Earth VR for the HTC Vive for free, giving us a whole new perspective on the world.

I remember, back in 2001, how amazed I was to see Google Earth for the first time. I remember huddling around the computer monitor with friends shouting “go to New York City!” “Go to Hawaii!” “Go to the Grand Canyon!”, and with a line of text and a tap on the return key, we were there, as the digital globe spun and zoomed in smoothly to give us a previously unseen view of these exotic locales. Google Earth made the world tangible in a way we’d never known it.

15 years later, in Google’s San Francisco office, I felt that same magic. Except this time, I could not only fly from one place to another for a bird’s-eye view, I could zoom down and plant my feet on the ground with the entire Earth encompassing my view.


I don’t use the word “breathtaking” in headlines often. But when you find yourself towering over a detailed recreation of San Francisco, or standing eye-level with the top of the Eiffel Tower, or watching the Sun set and the Milky Way rise over the plateaus of Monument Valley, it’s an easy choice.

Launching today on the HTC Vive for free, Google Earth VR lets you touch and explore an incredible dataset—high-res satellite imagery, aerial photography, and photogrammetric recreations of major cities—all seamlessly integrated into a single model of our planet.


Donning the HTC Vive, you’ll find yourself first looking at a small version of the planet set against a black backdrop of space. Using the Vive’s controllers, you can hold the top half of the right trackpad to zoom in toward the planet. As you zoom in you’ll being to see labels of countries, and even closer, states, cities, and towns. At this point though, you’re still flying face-first toward the ground; as you get closer you’ll want to tap the left trackpad which will flip your perspective 90 degrees so that your horizon becomes that of the planet’s surface. Now it feels like you’re walking on the planet like a giant, and you can continue to zoom down to your destination.

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You might suspect that flying all the way from down from space and then shifting your horizon 90 degrees would get dizzying in VR, but Google Earth VR employs a smart locomotion method (which doesn’t rely on teleporting). You’ll fly in whatever direction you point your controller and as you do you’ll see that the peripheral field of view shrinks around your center of vision, revealing a static grid around you. When you stop again, the view will expand to fill the scene as before. It’s a solution that works impressively well, even as you grab the earth below you and drag it along to move from one town to the next. It also keeps you more immersed in the experience by actually letting you traverse from place to place, rather than just appearing there. And, thankfully for those not prone to any VR motion sickness, you can turn off the shrinking view entirely, letting you fly about with the fully expanded scene around you.


Once you do get down to ground level, you’ll find that most anywhere on the planet has high-resolution satellite imagery and elevation data. If you visit some of the world’s biggest cities, you’ll find them fully modeled in 3D. When I first tried the experience at Google’s offices in San Francisco, I knew I had to see the city itself from within Earth VR. So I zoomed down until I was the size of a small skyscraper and walked around the 3D recreation like I was a giant. I could lean down to peer at the streets between buildings, or stand next to the cities skyscrapers. I could see the Giant’s stadium and, off in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a really spectacular way to experience something you know in an entirely new way.

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And it isn’t just cities; some areas of Earth VR, like Yosemite National Park, are modeled down to the individual tree, making the view all the more rich when you grab the virtual Sun and spin it down on the horizon to bathe the park in a beautiful sunset. Dial the sun a little bit further down and you’ll see the Moon and stars rise over Half Dome.

For the time being, there’s no search function in Earth VR, so your journey is mostly manual exploration. Though once you find somewhere you like, you can bookmark it by taking a virtual photo which will be stored in your Saved menu and can be returned to at any time. There’s also several pre-installed guided tours which take you to scenic locations and even give an ambient soundtrack to make things that much more serene. One day I imagine such guided tours could have voice-overs that teach you something about each place you visit.


The company has done an impressive job of bringing Google Earth to VR. It feels robust. The development team sells me that the app is built so that it will continually benefit from improvements in the Google Earth dataset over time, and that, “Earth VR is a product, not a demo,” one that they plan to continue adding to after launch.

I hope that one of the top features on their post-launch list is social functionality. Earth VR is breathtaking, but when you’re in the headset alone you can sometimes feel like you’re the only one on the planet.

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Unfortunately, Google Earth VR is a Vive only experience for now. Although SteamVR supports the Rift, the developers have chosen not to support the headset at this time, and aren’t saying if or when they might. It isn’t clear if the decision was technical (perhaps because they wanted to prioritize getting Google Earth’s rendering engine working first with one headset, or maybe because Oculus hasn’t yet launched Touch controllers) or political (Google and Oculus are competing on the mobile front between Gear VR and Daydream).

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Raphael

    Looks good.

  • DiGiCT Ltd

    +1 for google

  • sntxrrr

    can’t wait to get home to go globetrotting!

  • Zach Mauch

    This is amazing. Has anyone found deeper settings in the program? I would like to optimize the loading.

  • dogtato

    Seems awesome already, but I’d love some gameplay. Maybe an updated “where in the world is carmen san diego”

  • Glaubenskrieger

    I wonder if this will be filtered like their search results.

  • jlschmugge

    Any news of a Rift version when touch comes out?

    • Rick

      VIVE only sadly, Google locked the app itself.

      • whitedragon101@gmail.com

        I am crossing my fingers that when Google say “only availale on HTC Vive at this time” that the “at this time” part is a hint that they have a Rift version ready for the release of Oculus Touch

        • Raphael

          It’s Google and it’s out for Vive… why wouldn’t they unlock for Octopus when it’s finally a complete system. Blame Octopus for being so slow with touch.

      • jlschmugge

        Huh, I was wondering how long it would take for me to complain about Vive exclusivity, not counting wand only games of course. Today’s the day. Any one up for programming DeVive?

        • NoMoreRoom

          But Rift doesn’t have touch yet, they prob didn’t want to code to a controller as well as the motion controllers i’m sure it will be compatible once they are released. Funny to see Rift users upset about exclusivity though.

          • RationalThought

            Why? Rift users didn’t CHOOSE for it to have exclusive deals? I am sure most would prefer an open environment. Better for every one.

          • NoMoreRoom

            I’m sure a lot of Rift users do want an open ENV but that is what the Vive is about, HTC/Valve hasn’t made anything exclusive (google did this time, maybe) but Oculus sure has done their best to wall off their market and pay devs to not release on other systems.

          • Get Schwifty!

            HTC/Valve is “open” but not necessarily level… you can be sure FB/Oculus is the last of their concerns, which is why FB/Oculus use exclusives to help build appeal for an alternate platform; they’d be fools to trust their baby to a partnership that is a clear competition.

          • jlschmugge

            I knew this day was coming, I was actually more upset back in April that no Vive owner had the foresight to know things will work in their favour someday. People are impatient Gimme Gimmies.

            I’ll wait and see what happens when touch is out.

        • Billy H

          Revive has already released a workaround for Rift users

    • Get Schwifty!

      I would expect it sooner or later, but as the article pointed out the competition between Google and Facebook is an issue currently. Seems exclusives are not just an issue with Oculus…

      • ummm…

        i see your point. maybe google is teaching facebook a lesson. they typically dont wall themselves off. anyhow, i think the mudslinging is not helpful and im not sure you arent comparing apples to oranges. afterall google earth isn’t an htc product. was google paid for exclusivity? did they say it wasn’t coming. the touch isn’t even OUT yet.

  • chaos_in_ashland

    I just tried it, and it’s awesome.

  • MosBen

    I wish that there was a way to go all the way down to human-size; to really be in a place.

    • user

      not with today’s technology. even if they use the footage of their satellites it’s still “<90 cm imagery resolution". so no details in human scale.

      • Joel Cullum

        Details would suck, but they should allow you to do it at least to get a scale of things. I visited the Grand canyon on here and needed to be human size to really appreciate the depth.

        • NoMoreRoom

          You can enable it in the options. I tried it, not that impressive. Its just not detailed enough.

    • felixcox

      You can by going into the menu. It allows you to seamless scale down to 1:1 size on the surface. It’s incredible, but unfortunately, google has not yet integrated streetview data, so most things are very very low resolution. Trees up close are nothing more than blocky triangles, cars are lumpy cartoony approximations. But in big cities, you still get an awesome sense of scale. It’s just incredibly mind-blowing to have so many locations that you can see in 3d from so many angles.

  • Sebastien Mathieu

    wow!! can’t wait to get home to try this!!!!

  • PrymeFactor

    Strangely, the usual suspects aren’t in here complaining about exclusivity, since it’s swinging the other way.

  • Stefan Eckhardt

    Next step: PS VR!

    One can always dream…

  • RationalThought

    Shame…..I was hoping the rest of the industry would continue to shame Oculus into complying with the market but alas…..exclusivity it is. (Sony being the main culprit of this in all fairness)

  • Jerald Doerr

    I almost cried using this… thank you Google for the free awesome software …. I checked out every house I lived in… it’s crazy flying around the hills and streets are used to live around in San Diego ….. saving locations feeling like the jolly green giant … even more so having powers like Ant Man and growing from 6′ to 6 tho used feet walking from San Diego to Northern California….

    Thank you google! You guys did a kick a$$ job and didn’t even try to milk $.99 out of us!

  • chtan

    Tried it yesterday night. It’s really breathtaking, grand and majestic. Killer app for Vive.

  • Scott Nebeker

    I full acknowledgement that I’m spitting hairs but some smartass is going to come here, write this and feel smug and ain’t no one feelin’ smug but me.

    You mention using Google Earth in 2001 and YOU ARE RIGHT. It just wasn’t purchased by Google and called “Google Earth” until 2005.

    I’m putting this up here because putting 2001 can cause confusion for those that have read Google’s shiny new blog, ‘The Keyword’: goo.gl/JbGd6g -OR- those a-hole analists like myself.

    Anyway, good journalism, good style, keep it up! As they say in the military: “As you was.”

  • Zaphod Beeblewurdle

    You know what would be *really* cool (are you listening google?) would be the ability to mark the location you are at IRL plus an orientation and then superimpose a “live” avatar or stick figure at that location (it would be an abstract looking interior space I guess, but the dimensions could be got from chaperone data, right?) . You could start in your room then zoom right out through the roof and go exploring. It might add an extra immersive boost :)