The announcement is straightforward. Google Geo (Maps + Earth) has given Multiverse Networks an easy path to exporting 3D content, models, terrain, imagery (I imagine) into the Multiverse framework. So there’s now apparently a button to extract a small section of the Earth.
What was notably absent from the article, and we’ll see if the official announcement has more details, is any mention of licensing the GE rendering/streaming engine. That’s significant, because without that engine (or something equivalent), you can’t handle more than a small area of the Earth. Small areas are all the article talks about, so I’m not expecting any bigger news just yet.
Here’s the technical aside: level of detail management is critical to being able to handle more than a small swath of land. Without it, your graphics card would be quickly overwhelmed with the sheer amount of data it has to draw for no real benefit (see How Google Earth Works for more, at least w.r.t. imagery). The other technical note is that one of the reasons Google Earth would have trouble being a metaverse, allowing you to walk around at ground level, is that doing so requires some heavy duty "occlusion culling," meaning the software has to effectively remove everything that’s hidden from view (e.g., behind something else, e.g., behind a wall when you’re inside a room) or else your graphics card would be quickly overwhelmed with the sheer amount of data it has to draw for no real benefit.
Do you see a common thread there? Rendering fully-detailed planets with the ability to go anywhere and also go inside buildings is considered a hard problem in 3D engine design. Do not try this at home.
Anyway, the biggest beneficiaries of this announcement will not be what you expect. The biggest winners will be the 3D real estate companies who so far have had a hard time pushing their 3D walkthroughs into Google Earth due to some of the above constraints, not to mention that GE has no concept of walking on a floor, which makes a two story house kind of hard to navigate.
These companies will now flock to Multiverse’s free development system (they get their money on the back end, as do real estate companies — see the synergy?) to enable 3D walkthroughs of their real-estate with some added Google Earth content. It’s still not quite as good as doing a real walkthrough in GE, which has over 250 million downloads and can show you important things like school districts and supermarkets. But this will be better for at least one aspect of the real estate sell, plus it adds the ability to offer better interactive content via scripting, which GE lacks. The only downside is the state of the real estate market.
What I’m really waiting for is the announcement of the first 3D game or world that actually licenses GE’s engine, or at least key parts of it, for a new flavor of EarthViewer that’s not strictly limited to the real world. John Hanke has in the past said it’s on the table, though I have no idea what the licensing terms would be.
Virtual Earth, on the other hand, seems more geared towards embedding VE’s world in other people’s products, even going so far as to offer a free API. This welcome announcement may be a sign that Google Earth is finally opening up to more mashups than we can possibly imagine.