“You'll believe a man could fly” stated the cinema poster of 1978's Superman: The Movie.
Well, if you are prepared to spend the best part of NZ$3500 on an HTC Vive and the required high-spec PC, now you can. All thanks to Google.
Do you remember the first time you tried Google Earth or Google Maps? Suddenly you had the whole world at your fingertips. You could check out aerial views of your old haunts, childhood holiday destinations, or where the relative live overseas. I don't know about you, but I found it pretty amazing.
Well, Google have done it again, creating an application that may go on to define this first generation of VR. Currently only officially available for HTC's Vive, Google Earth VR is the best virtual reality experience I've ever had, and it's 100% free.
Creating a VR app for their Google Earth data must have been a no-brainer for the folks at Mountain View. Google's Tilt Brush VR painting software is already a must-have app amongst HTC Vive VR aficionados.
After slipping on the HTC Vive HMD (head mounted device) and firing up the software via the Steam VR launcher, you are presented with a breath-taking desert vista, the two Vive controllers visible in front of you.
A brief tutorial introduces the software's easy-to-understand controls. It's so easy to use that I see Google Earth VR being Vive owner's new go-to app when showing off their (substantial) investment. Simply put, you can zoom in to the ground, fly around, pull out into space and spin the earth.
The software steams the ground data from the internet and it'll only do so at the speed of your connection- the same as the regular Google Earth and Google Maps. For most people, with a reasonable connection, there will be no problems. But something very special the Google has been working on, may require a little time to fully download.
You may have noticed that Google have started adding 3D ground features to their aerial imagery. I'm not talking about those horrible user-created Sketchup models, I'm talking about the LIDAR-scanned 3D features that have been popping up over imagery of major cities in the world, including Auckland and Christchurch (no Wellington, as yet).
Whilst this looks cool on your 2D monitor, it's mind-blowing in VR. You can stand in the Viaduct looking at the bars, admiring the boats, and then rocket skywards, New Zealand's outline disappearing into the haze beneath you.
From orbit, floating above a house-sized Earth, you can spin yourself around the planet, the pattern of stars that is the the Milky Way forming a beautiful backdrop to the pale-blue marble we know as home.
With northern California below, you zoom in, San Francisco lays beneath you, like a scale-model of the iconic city. Flying towards a lone island outcrop in the bay, you descend onto the infamous Alcatraz, landing in the former prison's exercise yard.
As this this is room-scale VR, a feature exclusive to HTC's Vive, we can walk about a little, or use the controller to move along the historic prison's pathways. Then it is time to head skyward, once again, and onto somewhere closer to home.
A high-altitude flight across the Pacific finds us over the east-coast of Australia, sweeping down the high-rise towers of the Gold Coast come into view. You can see the pools of SeaWorld and the sandy beach of Surfer's Paradise in the distance.
Calling up the menu allows you to select cities and VR tours of interesting areas. I select Tokyo, and in moments I've got a Godzilla-sized view of the Japanese metropolis. Next, it's on to Uluru AKA Ayres Rock.
In the mid-day sun the huge natural monolith in Australia's red centre looks amazing, by night, with the stars behind it, the view is breathtaking.
For one last trip, I zoom right out, spinning the Earth, looking for a particular destination: Yosemite National Park. It was a computer model of this location that, over twenty-five years ago, I would render in 3D using VistaPro, on my trusty old Amiga. It pretty-much got me hooked on all this stuff. To see the same view, photo-real and close enough to touch, really highlights how far technology has come in such a short time.
Of course, it's still early days and whilst many locations look glorious in Google Earth VR, most of the world is pretty flat and featureless. Cities that you'd think would be in full 3D, like Sydney, are not yet available, instead whilst the terrain is appropriately modelled, all the buildings and features are just flat aerial photos.
Whilst I can't guarantee that Google Earth VR will spare you from the dreaded VR motion sickness, the developers have provided a comfort mode, which the program switches on as default. Designed to reduce the likelihood of nausea for those prone to it when using VR, the program reduces your peripheral vision when turning as you fly around or drag the terrain. Those with cast-iron stomachs can turn this off.
Another option that you may wish to change is the “Allow Human Scale” switch. Off by default, turning this on allows you to zoom right in to ground level, as if you are standing there. Perfect for Superman-style ballistic flights into orbit.
The software comes with a number of built-in tours and locations, perfect for demoing your VR kit. Cities like New York and Tokyo can be visited with a click from the menu, or you can take themed tours of deserts, landmarks, cities, water and colour. These tours can all be controlled easily via the desktop so there is no need to confuse your grandma with a controller tutorial.
Google Earth VR is the killer VR app that we have been waiting for. If you've been sitting on the fence about buying an HTC Vive, now's the time. Vive kits are now available in New Zealand from retailers such as Might Ape and PB Technology.
I've just written the best part of a thousand words trying to impart just how amazing Google Earth VR is. But no words or fancy screenshots* can really describe this incredible experience. In giving us the ability to fly through the Grand Canyon, sit atop Uluru at sunset or look up at El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Google, have truly put the whole world at our fingertips.
*All the images in this article were captured directly from Google Earth VR, they are not photographs.