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This is the story, from my perspective, of how Google Maps went from a flat map where Greenland looks bigger than Africa to the beautifully realistic 3D globe we launched today.

My background is in 3D graphics.  Computer games are what got me into computers in the first place, and I ended up getting a masters in computer graphics.  When I first started working at Google I sat near +Bret Taylor and +Lars Rasmussen and got to watch them develop and then then launch Google Maps.  Later when Google bought Keyhole (which later became Google Earth) I was wowed by Keyhole's beautiful 3D rendering of the Earth.  So when I moved to the Google Maps team, one of the big things I wanted to do was to bring Google Maps and Google Earth closer together and make Google Maps 3D and bring that WOW factor to every Google Maps user.  The challenge was that Google Maps was 2D and written in JavaScript and HTML while Google Earth was 3D and written in C++, so bringing the two together would be really difficult.  In retrospect, it ended up taking until now :)

The first 3D-related project I worked on in Maps was the initial launch of Street View.   I also helped a bit in the launch of terrain maps with nice psuedo-3D shading and elevation contour lines (http://google-latlong.blogspot.com/2007/11/explore-new-terrain.html).

I got really excited when I saw +Paul Rademacher's Google Earth Plugin because I realized it would be a way for us to integrate Google Earth into Google Maps, and so I started hacking up a demo integrating the Google Earth Plugin into the Google Maps API.  Everyone agreed this was pretty cool, so we put more work into it and launched both the Google Earth API and the integration into the Google Maps API: http://google-latlong.blogspot.com/2008/05/google-earth-meet-browser.html.  I remember driving up to SF with +Paul Rademacher to attend Google I/O and talk to excited developers about the new APIs.  It was a great experience.

Next I wanted to bring this same integration of Google Earth to the consumer version of maps.google.com.  This ended up taking a while (I got sidetracked working on improving the performance of maps.google.com), but after lots of hard work we launched the Earth button in maps.google.comhttp://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/earthly-pleasures-come-to-maps.html.  While we were very proud of this feature and had big hopes for it, we quickly found that not many people used it.  When we looked into why, we found two main obstacles: the need to install a plugin discouraged most people from even trying the feature; and even with the plugin installed it took 10+ seconds to start the Earth view and people just aren't willing to wait that long.  Disappointing, but a good learning experience that reinforced my earlier work on performance: speed is always the #1 feature.

After this experience I took a break from 3D to focus instead on mobile.  We took the existing maps.google.com JavaScript code and got it running on mobile web browsers: http://googlemobile.blogspot.com/2011/05/google-maps-on-your-mobile-browser.html.  Even though this wasn't really a 3D-related project, I still found a way to utilize my graphics expertise by focusing on making the touch pan/zoom experience feel really smooth.

After this I was itching to get back into 3D, so I joined a project to render the map and Street View and 45 degree imagery using a new web technology called WebGL.  This new technology was really exciting because it made it possible to render 3D images in a web browser without using a plugin!  We launched the result as MapsGL (http://google-latlong.blogspot.com/2011/10/step-inside-map-with-google-mapsgl.html, https://plus.google.com/u/0/104261567553968048744/posts/EPwmfWfxUcB).

While we were developing MapsGL, some awesome Google Earth engineers built a prototype of Google Earth that ran in the browser using JavaScript and WebGL without the need for a plugin.  I remember seeing that prototype run in my browser for the first time and being so excited that I ran around the office showing it to everyone telling them that this was the future of Google Maps!  We also had an effort under way to automatically create 3D models of whole cities from aerial pictures (http://google-latlong.blogspot.com/2012/06/take-flight-through-new-3d-cities-on.html).  Finally,+Bernhard Seefeld and +Jonah Jones had a vision for new Google Maps that was really exciting.

Seeing an opportunity at the intersection of these 3 efforts to achieve what I'd dreamed of for so many years, I proposed a project to launch a 3D globe with 3D cities as the satellite view in the new Google Maps.  The day I got approval for the project (thank you +Brian McClendon!) was one of the most exciting days of my life.

We've spent a long time building this thing and it has been an amazing journey.  I'm really proud of what we built, and I'm really excited to be able to share it with the world today.

Far too many people have contributed for me to name them all here - in some sense this is a culmination of everything the Google Geo team has been working on since the beginning of Keyhole and Google Maps - but I would like to call out a couple people:

+Jonah Jones and +Bernhard Seefeld - for their vision and leadership in creating the new Google Maps.

+Brian McClendon - for his great leadership of Google Maps and Google Earth, for his unwavering commitment to 3D, and for believing in me.

+Larry Page - for reminding us that often it can be easier to do big things than small things because it is easier to motivate people to work on big things.  I really took this to heart in this project and it worked!

And remember...this is only the beginning :)
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17 comments
 
Huge congrats on this launch! Fantastic and beautiful work…I was playing with it earlier tonight on a friend's Chromebook Pixel and it's seriously great.
 
When I see you guys pulling these things off in the front end side, I am even more excited to improve our data on the back end! Congrats guys!
 
Thanks for giving your perspective, +Evan Parker! It helps me understand just how big this thing is.
 
You guys have done an amazing job, it's like the first time I encountered Google Maps after using Web 1.0 mapping services, all over again. 
Xah Lee
 
how to turn it on? I'm on Ubuntu Linux. Don't see a way to switch to earth view. I recall doing that in Windows.
 
Thanks +Vincent Mo and +Ray Cromwell ! Indeed one of our goals was to give people that same feeling they had the first time they saw Google Maps.
 
Awesome journey to show the world in a whole new way. Incredible watching this at Moscone yesterday on the huge screen. And, extremely cool to see Larry stand in front of a spinning globe for his talk. Beautiful. Inspired. Thank you! 
 
Really amazing to hear the whole story from somebody who's watched it from the beginning.  Great work, Evan!
 
And there's still so much more we want to do, right Evan?
 
I can feel the excitement bouncing off the plain text of your post.  Congrats!
 
It was a really cool launch.  So many things I'd always hoped to see go live in one big launch!  :)
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