If you read RealityPrime, you probably already have a good idea of the actual connection between Snow Crash and Google Earth. But if you read any of the other blog entries about the intriguing Arizona State University beta test without also coming here, you might have been lead astray on at least one key point.
So I’d like to be as clear as possible about the role Snow Crash played for Google Earth. I’ve also modified the old post on my personal blog to reflect this added clarity for anyone who wanders by.
Here’s an example of someone seeking to spin gold rumors from speculative hay:
The speculation about a Google Earth Second Life started last year. "The notion that you can create objects and buildings and place them in a virtual world makes Google Earth sounds less like a mapping tool and more like a metaverse. What’s a metaverse? Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson introduced the term in his seminal 1992 novel, Snow Crash. (…) In Stephenson’s novel, millions of users uploaded customized "avatars," or virtual personalities, and strolled the street, entering shops and exclusive nightclubs, conversing and trading with the metaverse’s other denizens." In fact, Snow Crash inspired the development of Google Earth.
That last link is to my original blog entry, which also made its way to the Wiki page and gets hit quite often. The mistake is in thinking the Metaverse inspired Google Earth. In reality, the element of Snow Crash John Hanke was specifically referring to was Stephenson’s panoptic "Earth" application, which bears a striking resemblance to Google Earth.
That doesn’t mean John wasn’t moved by visions of Metaverse / Cyberspace / "The Other Realm" as much as the rest of us (btw, that last one, from Vinge’s ground-breaking True Names was actually first). John did, after all, help create Meridian 59, one of the first 3D online-multiplayer games, long before coming to run Keyhole. But that’s not the point of his reference as I understood it. And I’m pretty sure John was as aware as the rest of us that Snow Crash was a fairly dystopian vision, not a literal blueprint for the future.
I should note that I’m a big fan of Stephenson’s work as well, but with similar disclaimers. I actually got to meet him when he visited my first VR startup in Seattle, around 1993. He was doing some research and later sought to understand the technical challenges of building an actual branded Metaverse that apparently never got off the ground. He’d even helped me try to find an agent for my first novel, which was especially generous of him since he hadn’t even read it. Quite the mensch.
What I haven’t mentioned before, because it frankly sounds a little too prescient/coincidental to be believable, is that that particular novel I was shopping featured both my own early visions of Cyberspace (which I’d called "RealityPrime" …) and an Earth-like application to boot, used to virtually explore a new planet prior to settlement. Although Snow Crash came out well before I wrote a word, I (embarrassingly) didn’t read it until a few years later, at which point I felt "significantly less special." It was definitely first, better, and my novel is still sitting on my hard drive, waiting for a potential rewrite (my family assures me it’s quite the page turner…) But I can at least attest that I was interested in stuff like Google Earth without needing much outside inspiration, though I never imagined back then that I’d actually get to help build the real deal. [And btw, that's not to claim that I offered the inspiration for GE either. I just helped build it.]
As for a more substantial connection between Virtual Worlds and Google Earth, it’s not hard to find. Just look at the backgrounds of the people who started Keyhole. I already mentioned John’s background. Similarly, I’d been working on VR development for most of my career. Michael Jones had been as well, via SGI and their many interesting customers. And Brian McClendon did via SGI’s world-class 3D hardware.
[In fact, that's how I got involved with Keyhole in the first place: I met Michael & company when I'd worked on Disney's VR projects. We worked very closely with SGI. And in fact, Jim Helman from the same SGI team had recommended me for the Disney job in the first place after seeing my work at that VR startup -- the same one Neal Stephenson had visited... Talk about networking! I've had a very fortunate, if accidental career -- decisions on my next move to be announced relatively soon...]
Anyway, apart from Snow Crash references, the reality is that Google Earth is already a Virtual World and has been since day one. It was designed to convey a strong sense of Presence, but not necessarily Identity (avatar). That can change if and when it’s important to Google, but that’s the way it was originally meant to be. And I thought at least some of you would be interested in the finer points of its history.