Google Earth has been around for a long time, as the more full-featured standalone version of Google Maps. It’s a great tool, and can come in handy when looking at real estate, measuring distances, or for a little global exploration. But when you add VR into the mix, it’s something different entirely. Behold, Google Earth VR! It is to regular Google Earth what good genuine pizza is to national fast food delivery chains. In short, it’s a major step up in quality, and offers a new experience for users. It’s not just a tool anymore – with Google Earth VR, it’s entertainment, virtual tourism, and much more.
Background on Google Earth VR
Google has slowly but surely been acquiring a wealth of geographic data about the world we live in. Mapping information to power Google Maps and Google Earth was just the beginning. The fleet of 360-degree photography vehicles that supply Street View images revolutionized what online mapping could look like. It set the new standard for what we expect out of mapping programs in the modern era. Then, they added satellite photos, both current and historic, and provided another valuable layer. On top of that, Google leveraged public databases of points of interest, photographs, and information, to make Google Maps and Google Earth even more powerful and useful.
But up until recently, the only way you could access that information was through a 2D interface. Whether on a computer screen, tablet screen, or smartphone screen, you could access Google Maps or Google Earth, use their tools, toggle satellite and Street View options, and so on. It was useful, and could even be somewhat entertaining, but it was a limited and very traditional way to experience the equivalent of petabytes of data. Taking all of that data, and rendering the world into geographically accurate, fully immersive 3D was the next logical step. And that’s precisely what’s available in Google Earth VR.
What Can You Do in Google Earth VR?
Released in 2017, Google Earth VR lets you experience all of that data in a whole new visual and immersive way. You’re not sitting back, scrolling through a computer screen looking at flat, static maps. You’re freaking Superman! You can fly high above the Earth, and even go into outer space. Fly through the Grand Canyon or over major cities and landmarks. Or, teleport to destinations around the globe in an instant. Experience familiar places in a whole new way, and explore new places in a way never before possible.
Here are just some of the features and things you can do in Google Earth VR:
- Walk around above a city, looking down on the world below. Get as high up or as close as you want. The buildings are all rendered in full 3D, and you have a birds’ eye perspective.
- Zoom on down to street level and explore through the Google Street View database. You can look around in full 360 degrees as if you were walking down the street in real life. While the smells and the sounds may not be included (yet), it’s almost convincing enough to believe you are really there in person.
- Explore thousands of locations around the world that have been fully imaged and rendered, including major landmarks and scenic attractions.
- Enjoy virtual tourism with hand-picked destinations and special cinematic presentations.
- Soar across the landscape, browse for specific locations, teleport at random, spin the globe – the possibilities are endless.
How is Google Earth VR Different?
Being inside Google Earth VR is a very different experience from looking at static images on a flat monitor. You really feel that you’re part of the world when you’re in the VR space. That’s the beauty and wonder of VR technology in the first place. It takes the experience to an entirely new level of reality and immersion that you simply can’t get outside of VR. Coupled with the wealth of images, information, and features – especially for major cities and points of interest around the globe – and Google Earth VR becomes a digital passport to explore the world from the comfort of your home.
In many senses, Google Earth VR can be considered virtual tourism. For people who have limited finances and can’t travel the world, or who have mobility issues or are of an advanced age, it can open up entirely new possibilities. Even the most well-off people can’t visit everything everywhere. But with Google Earth VR, you can spend an hour in Paris this weekend, walk the streets of Tokyo before dinner, or spend 15 minutes flying over the Alps before bed. It really is the closest we’ve come to virtual travel so far. Now, if they can just work out the sounds and smells portion, add in some AI characters to interact with…we’re not that far off from a totally convincing virtual experience like something out of The Matrix or Westworld universes.
And Google Earth VR knows what it wants to be. It’s not intended to be a replacement for regular old Google Maps or Google Earth if you need directions to somewhere, or live traffic information, or a quick reference of where to park downtown. It’s still much easier to go on your computer, tablet, or smartphone and use a traditional mapping interface for those kinds of tasks. Google Earth VR is entertainment, education, travel, and excitement. It’s an experience, separate and apart from the data and systems that support it and their 2D incarnations. And when you’re floating above your favorite city, or floating above your own house…while in the real world you’re inside of it…you can get lost in the experience. And that’s the mark of a successful use of VR technology.
Headsets, Compatibility, and FAQs
Hopefully, our review has sold you on Google Earth VR, and you’re anxious to give it a try. Like most VR programs, apps, and experiences, though, it’s only available on certain platforms. Here’s our full FAQ rundown on headset and platform compatibility, pricing, system requirements, and more.
What does Google Earth VR cost?
Google Earth VR is available for free from Google, either directly, through various headset platform stores, or from SteamVR.
What platforms or headsets is Google Earth VR available on?
At present, Google Earth VR is only available on the Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive/Vive Pro tethered headsets. It requires significant computer processing power, and systems that can run either of those tethered headsets should be more than capable of running Google Earth VR.
Will there be a mobile version of Google Earth VR?
It is unclear if there will be an app or mobile version of Google Earth VR for iOS or Android devices. The processing power needed to run the program is significant, and despite advances in mobile phones, for now, only tethered VR headsets have the capability to utilize Google Earth VR.
What about the Sony PlayStation VR or the Oculus Go?
The Oculus Go does not support Google Earth VR. It is unclear if the Sony PlayStation 4 console itself has the processing capabilities to handle Google Earth VR, which would be necessary in order for the Sony PlayStation VR to support it. Since it is not officially available, our assumption is the requirements are too hefty for the PlayStation 4 to comfortably support, or there are licensing or other issues. As yet, there has been no definitive word from Google on this matter.
Can I use Google Earth VR without room tracking?
Google Earth VR works sitting, standing, or with room tracking. So, whether or not you have room tracking sensors for your HTC Vive/Vive Pro or your Oculus Rift, you can still use Google Earth VR. Obviously, some features will work better or be more immersive with room tracking functionality.
What are the system requirements to run Google Earth VR?
Google puts out two sets of specs, like most software manufacturers, for PCs capable of running Google Earth VR. There is a minimum required specs list, and a recommended specs list. So long as your PC meets the minimum specs for running an HTC Vive/Vive Pro or an Oculus Rift, you should be covered. The Google Earth VR program itself is just shy of 5 GB, so it takes some time to download and takes up a bit of space. If you want to make sure you’re good to go before you hit the download button, check the spec lists below!
Google Earth VR Minimum Specs
- 64-bit Windows operating system (Windows 7 SP1+, Windows 8.1+, Windows 10)
- Intel i5-6400 equivalent CPU or better
- 8 GB RAM
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 970, AMD Radeon R9 Fury equivalent or better GPU
- Broadband internet connection
Google Earth VR Recommended Specs
- 64-bit Windows 10 operating system
- Intel i7-6700 equivalent CPU or better
- 8 GB RAM
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 equivalent or better GPU
- Broadband internet connection
If you’ve got an HTC Vive, Vive Pro, or an Oculus Rift, there’s no reason you shouldn’t download and try Google Earth VR. It’s free, and an amazing experience. Users on other tethered platforms can only hope a port of the program will be available sometime soon. In the meantime, chalk up one more reason why the HTC Vive, Vive Pro, and Oculus Rift tethered headsets remain the dominant players among serious VR enthusiasts.