#475: Designing Google Earth VR: The Overview Effect & Finding Common Ground

mikepodwalGoogle Earth VR has been one of the most mind-blowing experiences that I’ve had so far in VR, for so many different reasons. It’s felt like it’s been rewiring my brain to accommodate the new perspectives of the earth in a way similar to what returning astronauts report as “The Overview Effect.” It’s also enabled me to navigate the earth based upon natural landmarks and without seeing borders, and therefore start to cultivate a new type relationship with the earth. It’s also allowed to find common ground with friends and strangers by sharing stories that are based upon geographic locations, and it’s one of the most intimate and powerful social VR experiences that I’ve had so far.

Dominik-KaeserI had a chance to do an interview with Mike Podwal, Product Manager for Earth VR as well as Dominik Kaeser, Engineering Lead on Earth VR to ask them about their design process. They focused primarily on performance, comfortable navigation, and an overall immersive experience of the earth. They weighed the tradeoffs between simplicity vs usefulness in looking at what features to implement, and very few of their beta testers requested an explicit search functionality. They instead preferred to do organic exploration and navigate based upon landmarks in a way that provides a new perspective and relationship with the earth. In the future, they will looking at the 2D version Google Earth for inspiration for new features such as annotation, but they also are open to feedback for the types of features that people are requesting. You can hear a lot more insights and stories behind the process of creating Google Earth VR in the interview below.


Google Earth VR is a powerful asymmetrical social VR experience where people can watch a 2D screen of someone in VR who is telling stories about their life or giving guided tours. Sharing stories based upon geographic locations has been a powerful way for me to find common ground with both friends and strangers. Google Earth feels like one of first real killer apps of VR that has made me want to share the process of annotating the earth with layers of meaning with my friends and family, and it will likely inspire a lot of people to buy their first high-end VR system.

Google Earth VR maps out the earth at many different scales ranging from human scale to being able to see entire countries. Being able to seamlessly navigate the entire globe at any one of these scales has provided something that no human has been able to really experience before, and so my brain has been stimulated in a way that feels like many new neural connections have been forged. It’s stimulated my mind with new ideas and insights unlike any other experience I’ve had before, and seems to make the explicit connection between geography and the architecture of memory. It’s also personally validated the concepts of embodied cognition theory that suggest that our cognitive processes are influenced both by our mind and body but also our environment. Google Earth seems to provide enough fidelity to your mind at the human scale to be able to evoke powerful memories, and I found myself efficiently mapping out the emotional landscape through the process of flying over my hometown in a way that I could never do before.

Google Earth VR is a free application for the Vive on Steam VR, and so I had a couple of follow up questions for Google after my interview. I asked them: “What kind of data can and cannot be collected given Google’s standard Privacy Policy within a VR experience?” and “Are there long-term plans to evolve Google’s Privacy Policy given how VR represents the ability to passively capture more and more intimate biometric data & behavioral data?”

Here is Google’s response:

Our users trust us with their information and we outline how it may be used across Google — to personalize experiences, to improve products, and more — in our Privacy policy. Users can control the information they share with Google in ‘My Account’.”

I didn’t see any explicit privacy settings related to virtual reality yet, and this is really the first application that they’ve released that starts to raise some of these deeper questions for me. I’ll be talking to more privacy and biometric data experts to get specific information about some of my concerns.

I believe that we are moving from the information age into the experiential age. Within the information age, we gave explicit consent over data that could be provided through a form. In the experiential age, companies can track head gaze and hand motions, and eventually eye gaze, emotional states, heart rate, and EEG data. As the founder of OpenBCI has suggested, EEGs and potentially other biometric data may have a unique signature that can’t be anonymized as easily and could have additional privacy concerns down the road.

These open questions about biometric data and privacy are long-term open question for the entire VR industry, as well as how to sustain vast experiences like this. I personally believe that new business models may have to be developed to really sustain these new types of services like Google Earth VR and other experiences in the metaverse. But for now, it’s an amazing service to humanity to provide this service free of charge for the world, and I expect that it will blow a lot of minds and inspire a lot of people to try out VR for the first time.

Overall, Google Earth VR has been one of those experiences that has really stuck with me and inspired me to reach out and share it with friends. It’s been a profoundly intimate way to get to know someone by having them take you on a guided tour of their locations on the earth that mean the most to them. By prioritizing immersion, Google Earth provides a completely new way of navigating the Earth the can provide some totally new perspectives. This is also an ambitious design effort that starts to explore entirely new interfaces and user experience paradigms that give a glimpse of where immersive computing is headed in the future.

This is just the first iteration of Google Earth VR, and the quality is just going to get better and better. However, I personally have my doubts that it’ll ever get to the full resolution of the Earth with all of it’s constantly changing dynamic processes. But I’ve already started to see and appreciate the earth in a new way, and it’s inspired me to want to travel and pay more attention to the beauty that’s all around me.

Google Earth VR is available for free on Steam.

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Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So I have had access for the last six days to an experience that has truly blown my mind. Google has mapped the entire earth in VR at every scale. So you can fly around and basically go anywhere that you want in the world. And it's had a truly profound impact on my brain, just going back to places that I recognize and recalling memories and being able to construct new narratives about my life, being able to share it with other friends and connect to them in really deep and profound ways. And it's also connected me to the Earth in a new way. And so on today's episode, I'll be talking to the product manager of Google Earth VR, Mike Pidewell, as well as the engineering lead of Earth VR, Dominic Kayser. And we'll be talking about some of my very preliminary reactions. In fact, I only had the experience for one day before I did this interview. And I've had it since then, another five days. And it feels like this onion that keeps on peeling back and going deeper and deeper and deeper. So I'll be unpacking some of those other further insights at the end of the podcast. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the book, The Ultimate Potential of VR. So, since May of 2014, I've interviewed over 500 of the leading innovators of the virtual reality space, and I've asked them, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality? So, in this book, I'm going to be distilling some of the diverse thoughts and impressions of these leading visionaries, creators, and academics, and it's going to provide a holistic look at the future of virtual reality, as told by the people who are making it. So sign up to get notified when pre-sales start at triplicitymedia.com. So this interview with Mike and Dominik happened on Friday, November 11th. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:11.438] Mike Podwal: Hey, I'm Mike Podwall. I'm the product manager for EarthVR. I've been on the VR team here at Google for about two years.

[00:02:16.903] Dominik Kaeser: Hey, I'm Dominik Kaeser. I'm the engineering lead on EarthVR. I've been working on Google Earth for four years and started this project a couple years ago.

[00:02:25.058] Kent Bye: Great. So this is something that I have been looking forward to for a long, long time to be able to essentially go anywhere in the earth and to dive in and to have kind of like an immersive VR experience of that. First of all, why don't you just kind of tell me what you've been able to do so far with earth VR.

[00:02:43.688] Mike Podwal: Yeah. So I'll start by saying we're standing on the shoulders of giants with this project. Google Earth has been around at Google for 10 years. And over that course of time, you know, has made access to the knowledge about the real world available to everyone for free in brand new ways. And really what we want to do with this app is offer a brand new perspective on how you can explore that data set. So the key things to know about this app are, one, it's on the HTC Vive, and that means that you can walk around Earth feeling like you're a giant. You can change your scale, you can stand on buildings, or you can go up to the highest stratospheres of the sky. But it's really just a breathtaking experience to be able to walk over a skyscraper or walk past Mount Fuji. The second thing that we're really excited about is the ability to really, as you said, go anywhere. And as far as we know, this is one of the first, maybe the first apps in VR that enable this kind of experience. So anything from places that are extremely difficult to reach, to places that matter to you personally that you haven't been to in a while, to a city that you've always wanted to visit. So we think that range is really exciting. And then the third thing is the ability to not just walk around, but fly around. So we spent a lot of time focused on the navigation experience to make sure that it's not only immersive and really cool and simple and fun, but comfortable. We know how important comfort and VR experiences is. So we obsessed over that. And the last thing that we really focused on with this app is curation. So while there is infinite places for you to go in this world or close, It's also a pretty big world, so we wanted to make sure that the best places with the richest 3D data were really easy to find. So we have a menu that has the places that we're really excited about. We also constructed a series of tours that have ambisonic audio and beautiful soundscapes behind them, taking you to some incredible scenes. And yeah, that's basically what we've done.

[00:04:36.802] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so I just wanted to jump in there just to kind of share a little bit of my own personal experience of what I did in the Earth VR. I immediately went to where I live now in Portland, Oregon, and was pleased to see that there was lots of like 3D geometry that I imagine you're doing some sort of combination of using satellite photos and perhaps photospheres from Google Street View. But somehow you're coming up with this 3D meshes of the buildings that are around. There's some areas that I went to where I've lived, which were more rural, and they were just flat. And they were just kind of a texture of the satellite photos, but there was no 3D geometry there. It was a lot different type of experience for me where there wasn't that sense of actually being there. It was kind of like almost disappointing, like I wanted to go back to those areas that had that full geometry that triggered my own memory of being there. So maybe you could, Dominic, tell me a little bit more about, you know, how you were able to actually generate those 3D meshes and the geometry within these urban areas. Yeah, definitely.

[00:05:38.236] Dominik Kaeser: So first of all, this is years and years of work that has already been exposed in the traditional version of Google Earth, where we have these 3D meshes as well. And generally, we aim for having the highest quality imagery everywhere we can, and not just imagery, but also geometry. It just happens that, well, there's a lot of places, and if you have to fly airplanes, you have to be selective where you fly. And so we started a couple of years ago with a selection of places that we thought make the most sense, but we're definitely expanding. And to your question about imagery, so we have all this imagery from satellites to aerial from Street View, and then we have a set of engineers to write algorithms that combine all this imagery to 3D reconstruct buildings using photogrammetry techniques. And then the quality really mostly just depends on the set of available imagery that we have.

[00:06:27.117] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had the experience of going through some different streets and when you're a human scale and you're looking at it, I don't think it's actually the full strength of what this is because it doesn't have the full textures, but when I went out, it actually made me appreciate what I could see from my human level. So it started to change my relationship to the earth in that way. But the thing that I really enjoyed was to do that changing of scale. Because right now, this is something that I've never been able to do ever. I don't think anybody's really ever been able to do is to feel like you're present in a place and then to be on the mountaintop and then to just fly up in the air and jump to the other mountaintop. That was just something that I was doing where I was able to fly around areas, look at cities from a kind of near field. To me, it started to change my relationship to geography in that way and to be able to really have a visceral experience of these cities. And I think that spirit of exploration, I think is going to be a huge part of being able to go to places and get some idea of what the landscape is and then kind of feel what kind of culture may evolve from there. Specifically, the comfort modes I think was really important because just like Eagle Flight was lowering down the periphery to make it a comfortable experience to actually fly around, you've done quite a lot of different VR comfort modes that you can turn on and off. And I found myself kind of going back and forth. There's some things that are comfortable if I'm flying up at a high enough altitude, I actually don't need the comfort mode. But when I'm lower down and I have a lot of optical flow, I found like it actually did help and I was feeling a little motion sick because I am fairly sensitive. So I imagine that people will be able to find their own tolerance to see the combination of being able to do both things that get the full experience of being able to see this flying around, but also If you are sensitive, you want to make it comfortable. And I really think it was a really smart decision to default to that comfort mode just to make sure that it's not going to make people sick. So maybe you could talk a bit about some of the things that you were doing in order to do that.

[00:08:22.927] Dominik Kaeser: Yeah, definitely. We did want to be really conservative and have safety and comfort at our highest priority. And so we actually started out with a teleport model, where you were just with a laser point where you're going to, and then in the next frame, that's where you are. But we just found that people were confused, like they didn't actually know if they're going to stand there or if they're going to look at the object that they clicked at. Generally, they just lost the context of what they were looking at. And then we started investigating flying, even though we all knew that motion in VR is a problem, but we tried it anyway, and people got motion sick with it. So we went back to the books, tried to find workarounds, and what worked really well in our internal user studies was a combination of reducing the field of view, temporarily while the camera is in motion, and displaying a visual reference of the real-world ground around you. So the HTC Vive is a room-scale system. It knows exactly at what level the ground is. And in this peripheral area of your view, we always show a grid line of the real-world ground, and we found that really, really made a significant difference. And then the third thing is, even while you're dragging and flying, while users navigate around the world, we make sure that the virtual world and the physical world, that the ground is always aligned. So even if you fly up, what we actually do is we scale you up such that if you walk around, your shoes still stand on that building. You're not a thousand feet in the air.

[00:09:45.984] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that a lot of people have talked about like some of the, you know, we're going to be building virtual worlds, but that we're going to start to recreate our real world in virtual reality first. And, you know, this is a very ambitious and successful implementation, certainly for a first cut of what you're able to accomplish with this. And one of the things that I found myself doing was going back to places where I grew up and I had some friends over and one of the things that happened was that we were able to do kind of a guided tour. They took us to some of their places that they have visited and traveled and some of the stories that they had relative to those physical places. And what I found really interesting was that, you know, we were just watching it on the 2D screen. So we were hearing the story, but we weren't able to actually see the full 3D experience of it. They were in the experience driving it. A couple of things. One is that I think storytelling and being able to connect people's personal stories into places is going to be a way that people connect to each other. But the second thing is that I just really wanted to have a shared social experience in VR where we're both able to kind of move around. I know one dimension of motion sickness is whenever you're in control of moving around the scene, that actually helps match your expectations of what's going to happen. And you are able to kind of grab and pull things towards you. But if you're having somebody else do that, I realize that there could be some motion sickness implications there, but maybe you could talk a bit about where you see this going in terms of what you think is going to make this type of experience sticky in terms of social experiences, but also potentially, you know, if I wanted to record like a tour of my personal life of where I grew up and my stories about this place, are there going to be ways to do that?

[00:11:24.971] Mike Podwal: Yeah, fantastic questions. So I think there are so many examples in VR of experiences being heightened, enriched by being there with others. And we've certainly had conversations about this for Earth VR. Like if you think about just wanting a chat room, a place to go with somebody else, it's hard to imagine a cooler landscape than this app where you can literally go anywhere. You know, we think the potential for being there with your friends both in VR together is really compelling. There's probably heightened versions of what you experience with your friends as well, where maybe it isn't so passive for you watching on the 2D monitor. Maybe you're able to suggest things for the person in VR to go to, or there's sort of like a mini scale expeditions in some way. And in terms of stickiness for this, there's a lot that we can do in terms of investing in these kinds of social experiences, as well as investing in other kinds of content for people to explore when they're there together. So right now you have access to aerial imagery of the entire world. There's all other kinds of things that Google already has and could work on. So Street View imagery integration would be another thing that we could do together. other kinds of content formats embedded into Earth where people can explore. And this idea of annotating the Earth, creating something together while you're in there, if you look at what Google Earth has already done over the last 10 years, there's already the ability to annotate, to draw lines, to draw markers, to film stories. So we're inspired by that. We think there's a lot of potential there to make this yours and to share those kinds of experiences.

[00:12:52.218] Kent Bye: I had the personal experience of going into Earth VR and wanting to go to specific places and there was no search functionality. And so I had to find myself kind of zooming out and find the location based upon the natural landmarks. And so it kind of made me realize that that was something that I haven't done in a really long time. And something I've never really been able to do is to kind of scroll around the earth, trying to find a specific spot based upon natural landmarks. And so To me, it started to change my relationship to the earth in a certain way and change the way that I think about orientation and location and how to find specific places. Was that a specific design consideration for why there's no search function? Is it because you wanted to really inspire people to search and really dig into finding places in that way?

[00:13:38.498] Mike Podwal: It's a really cool question. Basically, the way we started this app is the way you would start any project, where you build the minimum experience necessary for it to be really compelling. So we focused first on performance, just making it incredibly fluid, seamless, where you can get around and it's easy. Then we focused on navigation, the ability to fly, the ability to drive the earth. And we started to get a lot of feedback from people internally in the company. And we didn't get a lot of requests for search. I mean, it certainly came up every once in a while, but I agree with you. There's something engrossing, immersive about just physically needing to interact with this app as opposed to using conventional shortcuts that you're used to, like search and other kinds of applications. Of course, we do see advantages to search. There might be very, very specific places that you want to find that aren't as easy to find in the map for whatever reason. Or maybe you know the name of a place, but not exactly where it is in the map. So search is something that we're excited about. But we also think that there's an interesting perspective you gain by not having it for this first launch.

[00:14:39.316] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that there's like space VR, people trying to put satellite cameras and to sort of shoot these VR experiences. And one of the things that talking to the founders of that is that He was really inspired by this overview effect, where as you get out and see the earth and be able to see that we all live on this planet. And I think it was also a really interesting design choice to not put in these country boundaries that are kind of human constructions that we're putting onto the earth. And that in some ways, not having that allows you to, again, experience the earth from the earth's perspective rather than humanity's perspective as well. Was that also like a design decision to kind of not put in boundaries and legal agreements between humans that are kind of projected onto the earth?

[00:15:26.656] Mike Podwal: It was, yeah, we spent a lot of time thinking about where do borders go, where do labels go, how do you balance these competing interests of wanting to give people context about where things are with immersion, of just giving them this experience of being in space, which for many people will probably be the first time, or maybe only time they'll get that experience. So I think we, I remember a discussion, Dominic, correct me if I'm wrong, of like, what is the depth level when you're zooming in of when the label should come on, where it's useful, but it doesn't break the immersion. I don't know anything to add there.

[00:15:57.409] Dominik Kaeser: Yeah, I think we've always had this balance between immersiveness and not making the view look cluttered and usefulness. And we just felt that to find places that we found people needed were the names of the places and names of the countries. And that's been enough.

[00:16:13.755] Kent Bye: Dominic, I have a question for you in terms of the potential API that may be opened up for VR developers. As I see an experience like this, I have all sorts of ideas of what I wanted to do to be able to build on top of this. Maybe you could give a sense of what the future may hold in terms of allowing developers to get more involved in creating experiences within Earth VR, but to be able to kind of have an application layer on top of what you've built.

[00:16:39.257] Dominik Kaeser: Yeah, I mean, it's definitely interesting. It's been on our minds, but we've been focused so much just on making this application great. We focus on navigation, we focus on performance, and the way we can tie things together in this first launch, in this first app, just helps us guide the experience in the right way for now, and making improvements to the 3D engine underneath. We still need to go back and figure out what's next for us, but it's definitely super interesting, and we'd be excited to see what other people came up with, because I think the imagery has a lot of potential.

[00:17:09.883] Kent Bye: So technically from a perspective of right now, this is running on very high-end computers with HTC Vive. Do you foresee a time when this might be available on Daydream as a degregated experience? Or maybe you could talk a bit about like how you see the future of making something like this available. I think that mobile phones are going to get better. They're going to get faster. Where do you see that kind of line when they're going to intersect and be able to have something like this available on Daydream?

[00:17:37.645] Mike Podwal: Yeah, so we've been 100% focused on supporting the HTC Vive and really, as Dominic said, making it an excellent experience. But of course, we recognize people have different kinds of VR hardware with different use cases and different demands. And we're thinking through the next steps of when we can support something like Daydream or other kinds of systems. Of course, Daydream in particular is mobile VR based on a smartphone as opposed to the HTC Vive based on a PC. And so there's different performance requirements there. And we should say that just getting the app to run this fluidly, 90 frames a second, never dropping a frame on the HTC Vive was an enormous engineering task. It took many engineering years in order to achieve that feat. And getting it to run on Daydream will be another extremely large task. And then on top of that, you have additional questions around like UX experience, where Daydream is different than the HTC Vive. So, you know, we're excited about it. We Earth has always been about making this stuff available to everyone. Right. And we do see potential in other platforms.

[00:18:39.626] Kent Bye: Yeah. Dominic. One of the things that I noticed is that when I go in and load up a location, there's a little bit of a progressive download that's happening where the geometry is slowly coming in and forming. And that's a lot better experience than sitting there and waiting for a minute or two before it just completely loads. And so. You kind of have this experience of the world kind of coming into more pristine detail over time. And so can you talk a bit about like what is going on in the back end there to even facilitate that and what type of innovations you had to do to even pull that off?

[00:19:11.622] Dominik Kaeser: Yeah, definitely. Traditionally, the Google Earth Engine has always been built with the assumption in mind that you can never download the entire Earth. So there's a ton of logic that analyzes where you're currently looking at, that tries to predict where you're going to be looking at in a few seconds, and starts sending off network requests already that we then cache. in the hope that we always have the geometry paged in. And we do a lot of that in the app as well. Like when you open the menu, we already start preloading things that you might jump to. And then the final experience comes also down to your internet connection, of course, that you have. One thing that we really focused on were the first couple of minutes, that the first couple of minutes in the app are really magical and beautiful. And that's why for this tour that you have for the first couple of minutes, we preload everything in the beginning of the app so that you don't have break of immersion.

[00:20:00.407] Kent Bye: Yeah, I can imagine with the tours, right now you have some pre-recorded things where you're taking to different locations. And I can imagine a time where people create audio tours of locations that you listen to while you go to the place and you kind of find it on your own. But for you in the process of creating tours with actual visuals, is it going to be possible for users to be able to create their own tours to be able to share with each other?

[00:20:24.241] Mike Podwal: So again, if you look at what Earth has done over the years, they've built these kinds of experiences and tools for anyone who can annotate the Earth, like draw a line, drop a little pin, and even record audio on top. So we're inspired by those kinds of use cases. And we do think that the ability to share, record your own experience, share your own experience, we think that has a lot of potential. For now, we are really focused on nailing a curated experience so we can show what's possible with the app. And then there's many directions we can go after that.

[00:20:53.783] Kent Bye: And maybe you guys could share some personal experiences that you've had in Google Earth. Maybe a story that you had of what type of thing that you went to and what type of things you were able to experience that was enabled by Earth VR.

[00:21:06.790] Mike Podwal: Yeah, all for like the very first time I saw this app running. It was a long time ago, many years ago. It was just a demo that had London, a single city. I was looking down from the perspective of a giant and I felt a couple of things. One, just a sense of utter wonder that I was able to view this from a very special perspective, kind of like a kid, kind of like I'm in a fantasy. Another element for it for me was just tremendous empathy, like to see the world from another perspective, kind of maybe an extension of the overview effect that you described earlier, and just felt pretty lucky to get to work on something like that.

[00:21:47.357] Dominik Kaeser: Yeah. I guess I can also talk about my very first time, which is when I got this first prototype that I built to work, and I accidentally had my interpopular distance off by a factor of, I think, 2,000 or something. Because our units are a little weird sometimes. San Francisco was this tiny, tiny toy city on the ground. And it just struck me that it kind of feels like these community planners that, you know, sometimes have cardboard models of their houses. It just struck me as this entirely new way of visualizing how a city works, how a country works, how people build their sites. And that's encouraged me to just grow this project and add navigation to it.

[00:22:32.093] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the things that I really also appreciated was the inclusion of a lot of different celestial mechanics of being able to go to different locations on the earth and to be able to drag the sun around and to see the stars and to see how the sun rises in different parts of the earth. However, it seems like it's locked into one time. I went to Antarctica and like the sun wasn't rising and I was like, wait a minute, it's not winter there. And you know, it wasn't, it didn't seem like it was accurate to where the sun was at right now. So I'm just curious to hear, And I've heard some people using Google Earth to do like planning for time-lapse photography to be able to actually, you know, shoot a shot of where the sun is going to rise. And just to be able to kind of move around the different times of the year, if that's something you're also looking into adding more fidelity to that.

[00:23:16.914] Dominik Kaeser: I think it's one of the things we've talked about, and it comes again down to simplicity of the product versus usefulness. There's so many features that we could have added to our menu, but it just didn't seem relevant enough for this first launch. And then afterwards, now we open it up to comments to see what the world would like us to do. It's definitely something we could build.

[00:23:36.343] Mike Podwal: We also had a version initially where I think the sun would adjust to the correct position based on where you're flying around the world. And we got feedback from people that they would like adjust the sun to the perfect sunset or the perfect dawn. And they just love the mood that it created. And they wanted to experience that wherever they went without having to constantly fiddle. So I think that was the main UX decision governing why we kept it static. But as Dominic said, of course, like there's a lot more that we could do to add more powerful features for people who are passionate about that.

[00:24:07.997] Kent Bye: Yeah, the lighting changes that happen when you change the sun are also amazing. And I love how that sort of changed that golden hour vibe that I sort of set it as well. And finally, what do you each think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:24:25.733] Mike Podwal: Oh man, do we have another half hour to talk about this? So there's so many directions to talk about here, but I'll offer one thing that I'm just really excited about, which is being present with people I really care about and really feeling like I'm there with them, either in a place that we both care about, that matters to us personally, or places that are impossible that we would never otherwise be able to reach. And having that sense of complete presence, knowing that I'm feeling like I'm really there with people, to me is just an incredible goal for this whole project.

[00:24:59.081] Dominik Kaeser: To me, the notion of teleporting to another place virtually is really important. So if eventually, you know, I love to travel a lot, but there's only so much traveling we can do because of all the logistics. And there's many people in the world that can't travel at all to new places. And I think as we increase our fidelity, as more experiences like the one we've built become available, ultimately, I think people really will learn a lot more about our planet and maybe become more empathetic about what's going on around us. I think that's a really great proposition.

[00:25:31.159] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you guys so much for joining me today.

[00:25:34.944] Mike Podwal: Our pleasure. Thanks for having us.

[00:25:37.026] Kent Bye: So that was Mike Podwell, the product manager for Google Earth VR, as well as Dominic Kayser, the engineering lead for Earth VR. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, there has just been a lot of really profound insights by using this experience. So I kind of categorize them into three different areas, just connecting more to myself, connecting to others and connecting more to the earth and beyond. So let's start with how it's kind of changed the way that I connect to myself. First of all, going back to my hometown where I grew up and my college and to different places where I lived, I noticed something really interesting about my memory is that how connected it is to different geographic locations. it really brought home this concept of embodied cognition. And the idea of embodied cognition is that you don't just think with your brain, you also think with your entire body. But not only that, the way that you think is also influenced by your surrounding environment. And because of that, as I'm kind of virtually going back to these places that I haven't been to in a while, a lot of these different memories just kind of started popping into my body, and they were actually really surprising. And What I noticed was kind of happening was that I was starting to do this emotional mapping of the peak experiences that I had in my childhood. And I was able to string them together, just kind of jumping from place to place, almost kind of flying over vast amounts of city. And so it brought back a lot of memories that had seemingly just faded away, but they were flooding back in. But also allowed me to make a lot of new different connections as to where I'm at now and the key moments in my history that led me up to where I am today. The other big thing that I wanted to bring out was just the connection to other people. I've had a chance to share this with a number of different friends and strangers and people that I didn't know quite as well. And what we did is that we would go and show where we grew up and where we went to school and some of the stories that left a mark on us. Being able to see the location not only helped the person showing it to tell the story, it actually helped me to remember it. Just later as we were talking about these different insights, I would have that scene flash into my head. And I think that's something that happens in storytelling is that you're setting the scene and telling all the details and there's nothing as vivid as to actually kind of have this simulation of what that actually looked like. So I do expect that this is going to be an experience that is very well suited for social VR. And when I say social VR, I don't mean that everybody's in a headset. I mean that it's actually a great experience to be able to sit around and watch a 2D monitor and seeing what they're seeing. Because of that, then you're able to have a conversation and talk back and forth with each other. And it's just a powerful way of connecting to people I already knew. I just felt like we went deeper and you're able to compress time and show the places that really mean a lot to people. So one of the things that I'm really excited to do is to bring Google Earth VR home for Thanksgiving and to show it to my extended family. I think it's going to be a really interesting way to connect with them in ways that I think using the Earth as the literal common ground between us, I think it's just a really powerful metaphor to be able to allow them to go to some of the places that they're really connected to and kind of get a tour of that place of the Earth, which connects me to them through the Earth. It is a bit of a performative aspect to be able to do it in front of other people. I think some people may just prefer to have their own solo experience of going in and going back to these places that they may feel connected to, but it's kind of fun to also do it as a group and to just go to places and see what kind of memories pop up. There were a couple of things that I should point out, though. One thing is that there's not 3D geometry in every place. And if you find somebody who goes back to a place that doesn't have that 3D geometry of the buildings, then it just seems flattened and doesn't seem to invoke the phenomena of embodied cognition. Their memories seem to also be flattened, and so it's not as vivid. And so you may find that some of the places that you want to go back and see are either flat or they may have actually changed a lot of what you remember. And so you try to go back and recall different things and it's just too different for you to really connect to the scene. Another challenging thing that some people reported was that they had memories in their mind and then as they're retelling the stories they found that the hovering view of a lower resolution fidelity of that scene started to almost replace that memory. because our memories are kind of reconstructed in the moment whenever we start to tell them. And then if you have a memory of being inside of a building and then you're kind of hovering up above the building and you're looking down at a building that is messed up in a different way, what's that going to do to your memory in the future? If you have a very visceral and vivid experience of VR, then that has a potential of replacing some other memories, which I think is a little concerning for some people. So that seemed to be an interesting observation. I think the other thing that's probably going to happen though is that it's already inspired me to want to go to some of these different places with some of my friends and actually look around at these different locations because going around at ground level and looking around there's a lot of funky artifacts. It's really best if you're kind of hovering up and that's partly because of how they're generating the 3D geometry. It sounds like from what I can hear it's a combination of satellite photos mixed with like airplanes flying over to get a lot of the 3D geometry. And then the street view seems to be adding some textures and possibly some additional geometries, but I got the sense that a lot of the actual geometry was coming from above because when you get at ground level, it just kind of gets weird and really uncanny. That said, when I was going down a street after I went into Google Earth VR, I started to actually notice a lot of the details that were missing from Earth VR. And so I felt like I was already starting to change my relationship to how I think about the Earth. I think it's really interesting that they decided for immersion purposes to not include a lot of boundaries or even a search function. You start to look at the earth in a different way in terms of both natural landmarks of mountains and rivers and lakes and just things that are really big that you can see from the sky and where cities are relative to that. But I found that kind of an interesting game. A lot of times when you're trying to find something, you may not know what it looks like, especially if you don't have any labels at all. And so it can actually kind of make a game out of it where the people who are watching can be looking on a map and then trying to see what they're seeing and give directions, giving these natural landmarks to actually find where they're trying to go. So that was kind of an interesting experience that we had as well. So the other thing, just in terms of connecting to the Earth, is that you're able to actually look to see where the sun rises and sets. And so you can just drag the sun and move it all around and see what the night sky looks like. So not only are you connecting to the Earth, but you're also connecting to the cosmos, because they don't have any light pollution. So you can see the full fidelity of what the night sky would look like if there was no light pollution at all. So it seems like they have a pretty static date, and the date seems like they've set it actually around summertime or so. So it's kind of opposite for where the sun actually is right now. If they would just set it to be dynamic and change to whatever the day is, I think that would be an amazing improvement from what it is right now, which is kind of a disconnection from the cosmos. For anybody who watches the night sky, I think that would just be appreciated to kind of get it a little bit more in sync as to where the sun actually is right now. But it's a fun thing to be able to jump around to different parts of the earth and to just see where the sun rises and sets and just see the effect of latitude when you're doing that. All the work that Google has done with comfort is really quite good. I mean, I am fairly sensitive to motion sickness and I would recommend people kind of experiment with it and see what your tolerance is because as you're flying up high in the air, you may actually find that it's a little bit more comfortable than flying low to the ground. Flying low to the ground is going to be a trigger for a lot of people, but the higher you go, the more comfortable it's going to be. And just the ability to fly up in the air and to change scales, I think is doing something really funky and interesting to my mind. I think we have a little bit of a mental map of a world, and it's kind of like two different mental maps. It's kind of like the mental map for what we see from the ground level, and then we have a mental map of what the map looks like, and sometimes that map is just a very simplistic version. Earth VR allows you to connect it to the full fidelity of what the landscape looks like, and you just can fly up in the air as if you were like a drone, or more like a superhero, and just be able to fly from mountaintop to mountaintop, which is something that we've never been able to do before, and I think that the parts of our brain that starts to store spatial relationships, it feels like it's working that part of my brain in overtime, and it kind of feels like it's getting rewired, and my brain is just firing new neurons. So I guess part of what I'm feeling is that overview effect of what astronauts report of going around and flying around space and coming back and kind of having a different perspective once they've been able to have a direct sensory experience of flying around the Earth. I can imagine that the Google people who've been sitting on this for two years have just been waiting to start to talk about some of their experiences. And I can't wait to hear more stories about what people have been experiencing. Just because I've already experienced this, doing Earth VR with friends and kind of feeling like we all went on vacation together, where we all have these shared memories and just these vivid experiences. So if I were to make a prediction, I think that Google Earth VR may be one of the first killer apps for VR. And what I mean by that is that I think it's going to actually inspire some people to go ahead and buy a PC and an HTC Vive. I mean, for one thing, it just feels like it's a giant memory palace because you're able to go around and use geography to work on your memory. And for anybody that wants to kind of connect it up to exercise bike and fly around the Earth and travel around all over. I think that there's just so many different applications that, like, pretty much the entirety of all of humanity's history has taken place on the Earth. And so any story that I read now, I think about, oh, I could go check that out in Google Earth VR and get a primary sensory experience of that and then use that as a memory hook. So I start to think of the Earth as just these layers of meaning that humanity has been layering on top of it, both from our history and culture, but also just our personal stories. And I've already just found myself wanting to go visit different places on the Earth to be able to fill in the rest of the gap. Earth VR is not the final thing. I don't think that people are going to be completely satisfied with this simulated experience of Earth. I think more than anything else, it's going to just inspire so many people to get even more connected to the actual Earth. and actually start to build their own personal relationship to it, noticing how much of their own memory and experiences have been impacted by the Earth. So one last point is that this is a free application. And one of the concerns that I had is, you know, what are the tradeoffs for what does that mean if it's free? What kind of data is being collected? Are they looking at the eye gaze information or looking at hand motion? And so I asked Google after this interview two questions of what kind of data can and cannot be collected given Google's standard privacy policy within a VR experience. As well as, are there long-term plans to evolve Google's privacy policy given how VR represents the ability to passively capture more and more intimate biometric data and behavioral data? So Google sent back a statement, our users trust us with their information and we outline how it may be used across Google to personalize experiences, to improve products and more in our privacy policy. Users can control the information they share with Google in my account. So I had a chance to just kind of scroll through my account and look through some of the privacy controls. I don't see anything specific to virtual reality just yet. And so this is really the first application like this that Google has released on a large scale that has a little bit more of some of these privacy implications, I think. are they able to track where we're going, what we're looking at, things like that. And so in the past, a lot of the information age paradigm for interacting with Google had to do with explicit consent, where you're giving over information. But with the experiential age, there's going to be a lot more passive data that's collected, as well as biometric data, whether it's where your head is looking, whether it's your hand motions, and eye gaze, emotional states, and at some point, potentially even EEG data. I think the big concern is that there could be some unique identifiers that can't be really anonymized once you are able to kind of create a digital fingerprint based upon some of this biometric feedback. So this is something that I'm going to continue to talk to different privacy experts as well as talk to different people who are really looking at the biometric signatures and just some of the trade-offs and concerns. But for right now, I think that the value that you get out of Google Earth is huge. It's just amazing. It's an amazing application and I can't wait to see how different people start to use it and how it starts to change our connection to ourselves, our connection to each other, and our connection to the planet and the cosmos. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you again for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do tell your friends, spread the word and become a donor at my Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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