Google Earth is definitely one of the most fascinating playthings in the company’s toybox; it was impressive when it launched in 2001 (under the name ‘Keyhole Earthviewer’) and it remains impressive to this day. I remember logging on as a teenager at home and finding the Eiffel Tower in Paris; back then, the only option was a top-down view, and I was disappointed when I tried to change the angles so I could “stand” next to France’s most iconic building. But Google Earth has taken care of that problem; thanks to Street View being integrated into the program, you can zoom into practically anywhere on Earth and roam the streets, exploring cities you’ve never seen from the comfort of your desk.
That’s not all; Google Earth has added data to allow users to zoom in under the oceans, see the Lunar Lander on the surface of the Moon, and even view high-resolution images of Martian terrain scooped from the Mars Orbiter and Exploration Rovers. Google Earth users can even view historical images, traveling back in time to view what certain areas looked like many years ago. You can explore the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland and the Prado Museum in Madrid.
But one of Google Earth’s most incredible features is the one you probably won’t have heard of; it’s an open-source DIY-capable piece of code that takes one step closer to bringing science fiction tech to life. It’s called Liquid Galaxy, and its description—an ‘immersive Google Earth’—doesn’t do nearly enough justice to the possibilities it can create. You won’t find Liquid Galaxy as a major Google release; its official project page is full of technobabble and source code modifications from engineers all over the world. Part of the beauty of the product is that it can be whatever you want it to be. But when it comes down to it, Liquid Galaxy is a design concept that allows you to project Google Earth onto several screens at once, creating a unified surround view of the world. It was originally developed by some Google employees as an independent project; they wanted to recreate the experience of seeing their geo-product imagery in a more seamless way. Using a few extra Linux workstations, they built a big gazebo-style case that housed eight 55-inch LCD screens, and used a cluster of computers to project Google Earth seamlessly and simultaneously—a combination of the Holodeck and a huge flight simulator.
Liquid Galaxy presents an endless amount of potential for teaching everything from geography to climate change and urban planning; after taking Liquid Galaxy on the road and being met with overwhelming praise, in 2010 Google made their configuration, codes, and schematics public so that anyone could rig up their own version. This makes Liquid Galaxy a fasciatingly unique Google product; while it’s been available to the public for three years, very few people have had firsthand experience with one. Georgia State University has a 48-screen display wall using four Windows 7 machines; NASA has one at the Johnson Space Center. Some can be controlled using Xbox Kinect; others use head tracking software. Liquid Galaxy has been used to run the virtual reality game Second Life, allowing players to truly feel as if they’re stepping into Linden Labs’ simulated universe. One civilian user has even rigged a five-screen Liquid Galaxy to run a Quake 3 mod.
If you’re computer-savvy and itching for a new project, you can find the Liquid Galaxy project here. The site contains how-tos, a guide for where to buy pre-built componenets, and encourages users to post their new enhancements, any defects they find, and what they’ve built with the technology. Liquid Galaxy’s open source means that the possibilities really are endless; with a few high-quality computers and a creative imagination you could end up making your wildest science fiction dreams come true.