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Mapping x2

January 10, 2005

Found: a new tool enabling my continued passion for exploration.

Just before the weekend, I wrote about a Swiss mapping service called (which, incidentally, does not use XMLHttpRequest after all if you didn’t catch the update).

Anyway, technology aside, a commenter pointed me in the direction of Keyhole, a service recently acquired by Google. The software looked interesting enough that I booted up my older Windows PC, signed up for a Hotmail account and registered for their free trial. I think I’m going to be spending some money here, folks.

Similar to, Keyhole is a mapping tool that allows increasing resolution of geographical areas. With a focus on North America, many regions of the world are woefully under-represented, but for those that are, it’s amazingly wonderful.

You start out with a 3D view of the globe. Using controls to tilt, pan, and rotate, you can zoom in and out on any area. As you progress through the levels, an active server connection loads in more and more detailed satellite photos of the area you’re viewing. For many non-populated (and non-North American) parts of the globe, the resolution is pretty low. Cities are more detailed though, and the larger cities resolve details as small as 3 inches across. Vancouver only went to 2 feet, but that was enough to pick out my building (and my car!)

More than a few hours were spent jumping back and forth between Google and Keyhole, the former to map out various landmarks and the latter to spot them from above. The Statue of Liberty, the Vatican, the Collisseum, the Eiffel Tower (and its equivalent in Las Vegas), the Empire State Building (and its equivalent in Las Vegas), and so on.

I wrote about Exploration last year, so it’s no surprise Keyhole has gotten my attention. As I explored Celestia, in fact, the low-resolution surface maps of the various planets led me to wish for a program that would combine real imagery and allow you to explore the surface of the globe as easily as you could the distance between planets in Celestia; Keyhole scratches that itch nicely.

Of particular note is that Keyhole now belongs to Google. The company’s site links to a FAQ that states Google has no specific plans at the moment, merely that it fits in with the overall Google goal of making the world’s information accessible and usable.

Linking physical addresses to satellite photos would just be the tip of the iceberg, I’d expect Google to come up with something more creative than that, although there will be a hornet’s nest of privacy questions to address. How long until we start seeing Keyhole hotspots of real-time satellite coverage of an area as it passes overhead? What about daily satellite weather reports of major cities? Or even traffic reports for that matter. This will be one to watch.

Update: Hey, these Google Ads really are targeted. I just found Image Atlas through an ad on this article. Looks to be a decent web-based equivalent to Keyhole. The resolution wasn’t quite as high in Vancouver, but it looks like it may go quite a bit higher in some areas. And you can order prints of any area. Neat.

beto says:
January 10, 01h

One of my work peers introduced me to Keyhole some days ago. For someone who still finds getting a window seat on a plane charming as when I was a kid, this stuff is terribly addictive. I could easily waste hours jumping from place to place across the globe while pretending I’m cruising 5.000 feet above. I know there’s more to Keyhole than this, but for now the fun factor hasn’t wore off on me.

If anything, Keyhole’s more evident Achilles’ heel is its poor representation of non-US spots, but we can only hope for it to improve over time. It should…

Keyhole is easily one of the most convincing “wish I had a PC and a fat pipe” applications to come lately. Worth the $30/year for a “lite” account, I guess.

Cory M. says:
January 10, 01h

I’ve tried both Google Keyhole and NASA World Wind, and definitely prefer World Wind. While less user-friendly, it’s completely free. Both work nicely on my powerful machine and fast DSL line, but World Wind has the annoying “feature” of tending to lap up my entire gigabyte of memory.

January 10, 02h

Or you can try Earth 3D - it’s for windows, linux and Mac OS X. I’ve tried in windows, but no chance to see our Earth. So may be in linux you’ll have more luck ;)

Jeff says:
January 10, 07h

Have you ever seen Terraserver? I believe it’s run by Microsoft and can be seen at and is surpisingly useful. It has famous places too, and has broken some disputes between my older brother and I :D. I’ll look at keyhole more.

January 10, 07h

I downloaded Keyhole about a month ago. It really is quite a program. I was able to see our house/cars and I thought that it was pretty cool. It does take a LONG time to load the images if you are using a Dial-Up line, but it works great on DSL or Cable. Worth the $30.

January 10, 11h

Dave, since you’re obviously an explorer, have you messed around with NASA’s WorldWind? Website here:

It allows you to explore real landscape data in realtime 3D…

Dave S. says:
January 10, 11h

“have you messed around with NASA’s WorldWind?”

Not yet, but that’s one to look into this evening. This one looks real nice, can’t wait to give it a try. Thanks!

Turnip says:
January 10, 11h

I was just about to say the exact same thing. What you’ve described about Keyhole sounds pretty similar to WordWind, except WorldWind is open source software…

That said, I’ve found it hard to get in too close. I managed to see my village, but not any close (I couldn’t pick out houses). The software’s pretty big (in terms of disk space) and somewhat confusing, but hey, I didn’t pay a penny for it. The world looks beautiful when you’re zoomed out :).

Andrew says:
January 10, 12h

“Linking physical addresses to satellite photos…”

Hey Dave, right in your backyard - The District of North Vancouver’s GIS Department maintains an application that allows anyone to do just that ( - look for the Property Information Explorer). Although it works only for addresses within the District, it uses 10cm resolution air photos - way better than commercial satellite images.

The main goal of the app is to provide property info to employees and residents, the mapping portion is just gravy.

Unfortunately (at the moment) it has only really been tested on IE in Windows (that’s the mandate from management!), other than a few map display issues it should work fine with Firefox (OSX and Windows). Can’t speak for any other configs.

January 11, 01h

If you get websites that want you to provide an email, try Mailinator

It’s a no signup, instant anti-spam service for just such occasions.

Keyhole is great, i took a look at it a few months back when google first aquired it. Sadly, living in Britain, it’s not as attractive a prospect as it would be if i lived in America. Excellent concept and execution though.

Jon says:
January 11, 01h

May as well throw EarthBrowser ( into the mix as well - it’s not as detailed as keyhole or WorldWind, but it does weather reports and cloudmaps for pretty much anywhere in the world. Oh… and webcams. Not as detailed, perhaps, but it’s still quite nifty.
Best of all, it’s Mac compatible, even if the UI is a little on the klunky side.


January 11, 08h

It’s true that the international Keyhole support is very poor. It was frustrating to not see the Nile region very clearly.

I think the neatest thing about Keyhole is how it’s so obviously a union of many different data sources — you can be cruising through Amsterdam or somewhere and suddenly the image colours or resolution will completely change because you’ve switched to someone else’s photography.

I was amused to note that although the Pentagon is clearly visible the US Capitol has been quite obviously censored out.

I posted a few snapshots of famous landmarks:

Joey B. says:
January 11, 12h

I also downloaded Keyhole about a month or two or so ago when I saw a link to it on Google’s main page around the time of them acquiring Keyhole. However, I’m on dialup, so I only got to appreciate so much of it. This is probably, though, thanks to this article and the above comments, one of the first programs I’ll buy once I get broadband since it sounds awesome if it can actually zoom down to houses and cars.

Hamish says:
January 12, 02h

Living in the Montreal Area, I found this really interesting.
(Unfortunately doesn’t work in Firefox for me at least…try IE)

Anyhow, It’s basically an interactive map. But if you scroll down in the right pane and activate “Orthophotos 2002” you can see real satelite pictures! I was able to make out my house and pool :p

January 12, 07h

This keyhole thing keeps crashing on me all the time, and it only has a very low resolution of the Netherlands. And I’m even living in a more populated area of the Netherlands, of which they have a higher-res image, but on that all I can see is the outlines of the fortification of Naarden. Among the blurp of big pixels, I can’t really spot my own city though (Bussum).

Also, at some point where it shows city names (Paris, London), I assume it is supposed to show capitals. Of the Netherlands it is showing ‘The Hague’. That may be where our government seats, but last time I checked our capital and most important city was Amsterdam…

Now that GlobeXplorer ImageAtlas is an entirely different matter - I can see my house from there ^_^.

p.s. for a school assignment I (everyone in my class, actually) had to create a similar program once, in Java. We had sets of images from Nasa in different resolutions, with coordinates specified. With that, I could see my house as well (of course, the high resolution images of our image set were aimed at the Netherlands, to keep the amount of data manageable). So aside from the pretty 3D, I’m not impressed with Keyhole at all.


Ottawa says:
January 12, 11h

As if they don’t have Ottawa on it. I’d actually sign up for the service if they did have it.

X-Wes says:
January 12, 12h

I’ve been playing around with Keyhole for a while, and I’ve found that it’s really quite fun. The high resolution in Vancouver was added only months ago (from arial photographs—see that little credit at the bottom of your current map). It certainly was fun zooming right up to my house in Richmond, for example.

Interesting, however, is the amount of information Keyhole has. You can try to enable different “layers” to show different information (I don’t exactly remember how to go about doing this). One layer is user-submitted, so various landmarks such as Canada Place were marked.