Now that Google Earth VR is available for Oculus Rift alongside the Vive, a whole new batch of explorers have entered the ring. With the April Rift release also comes a bunch of updates, including the ability to search for cities, points of interest, and keywords and be transported immediately to them.
If you haven't yet given Google Earth VR a go, drop what you're doing, boot up your PC, and put on your Vive or Rift; this is one of those experiences that can't be ignored. The sheer magnitude of what you're seeing, coupled with the ability to fly and even walk around on the ground, does something special to the human mind.
Google Earth VR can also be a bit overwhelming at the start. It's easy to just fly around a bit, visit your old hometown, and leave without too much experimentation. To help you focus and to bring some really neat stuff to your attention, we've put together this guide.
Get acquainted with Google Earth VR
Upon launching Google Earth VR for the first time, you'll be treated to a bit of a tutorial on which buttons do what depending on whether you're using the Rift or Vive.
You can click and drag Earth beneath you, you can fly around with your joystick or touchpad, and you can switch between a suspended space view and a walking Earth view. Can't find a place just by flying around? There's a powerful search tool (as is expected from Google) to take advantage of to find places you've visited or heard of.
If you happen to find a place that you want to save for later, whether to revisit or to show someone else, hold down the Save button, have a look around to frame exactly where you want the starting point to be, and release the button. Your saved places can be found in the main menu under the Saved tab.
The main menu has a bunch of featured places you can visit; more were just added for the Rift release. Not all spots in the world are 3D modeled, but these featured places definitely are, and they're definitely worth checking out.
There are also six guided tours that take you to some of Earth's best attractions. While you're on the tour you can't move around other than moving your head to take in the sights, but you can choose to pause and exit the tour at any time. At this point, you'll be free to move around in the location, but to start the tour again means starting from the beginning.
Enable human scale and turn off comfort mode
By default, Google Earth VR has human scale turned off and comfort mode turned on. Comfort mode narrows your vision — sort of like tunnel vision — when you're flying around, rotating, or dragging to cut down on motion sickness. If you can handle the experience with it off, you'll get a much more realistic sense of flight.
On the realism front is human scale. With it turned off, you can only get so close to the ground. With it enabled, however, you can get right down to the pavement, sand, dirt, water, rock, or lava. This gives an incredible sense of scale and really helps make you feel like you're actually there.
Here's how to swap these settings:
- Hit the Menu button on your controller.
- Select the More button. It looks like three dots stacked atop each other.
- Select the switch next to comfort mode so that it turns Off.
- Select the switch next to human scale so that it turns On.
Incorporate music into your travels
Google Earth VR does come with music and some sound, but it doesn't always apply to what you're seeing. For example, you'll often hear birds chirping and calm music playing while you're standing in the middle of downtown Manhattan. One of the best things to do for extended periods of play is set up your own themed music.
Say you're still in Manhattan, looking at all of the towering buildings. A quick search of "city sounds" on YouTube will bring up hundreds of thousands of options. Have buses screech their brakes, listen as sirens wail, and hear people talking as they pass. You might even hear someone swear at you. Realistic!
Flying over a South American jungle? This YouTube video of relaxing jungle sounds is one of our favorites when we're making our way along the Amazon.
Are we crazy for doing this? Maybe. But once you experience it with your own sound, it's hard to get back to the norm.
Change the time of day and track Earth's rotation
If you jump into Google Earth VR and see that it's dark outside, you might be wondering how to change the time of day. Easy! Just point your controller at the sky, hold the Drag button, and move it around. You'll notice there's a line around Earth; that's the path the sun appears to take in our sky.
Switching over to the Milky Way gives a whole different perspective on the place you're visiting, so try going back to some of your favorites and moving the sky around. Want to see just how the sun never sets at the north pole? Plan a trip there and drag away. The colors are absolutely beautiful.
Plan bike rides or hikes in and around your city or town
Google Earth VR isn't just for visiting faraway lands. Now that summer is on its way again, why not plan a bike trip to see the parks in your city or town? There are probably a lot more than you think, and they're easily discovered from the air.
Want to get out of the city for the weekend? Have a look at some hiking trails or campsites within driving distance. Is there actually a nice lake to camp near like the website says? Are there actually a lot of trees? How close is the highway you took to get there?
Use Google Earth VR as a scouting tool, and you'll always be sure you're headed to a great place.
Fly the length of the Great Wall of China
Can you really see the Great Wall of China from space? No; your teachers lied to you. You can, however, see it from Google Earth VR. A good starting point is to just do a search and let yourself be transported; you'll quickly see that the wall isn't one long, continuous piece designed to keep out the Mongolian hordes.
It's actually a whole bunch of different pieces of varying sizes. Part of the fun is following the wall until it disappears into a thick forest; it's up to you to find out where it emerges on the other side. Bonus points go to whoever can find the Old Dragon's Head, the location where the Great Wall enters the sea.
Take a history lesson
We've all heard mention the locations of great battles throughout history. Whether it's the coast of France where the D-Day invasions happened, the fields and hills of the Battle of the Somme, or the Alamo Mission, Google Earth VR provides a scale to these confrontations that is better than any history book.
If you're cruising over Europe where some WWI battles took place, marvel at the network of trenches that still mark the fields there today.
Your favorite things to do in Google Earth
What we have listed here is just what we've been enjoying for the last few days. There is pretty much an unlimited amount of cool things you can see and do here, so why not share your favorites in the comments section?