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[Update June 1, 2012 – I am angry at the Google crowd for totally screwing up a fabulous tool by having a truly confusing user interface! I wrote the post below four years ago, which is an eternity in the internet world, and still they haven’t fixed the problems. What is worse is that most of the time there isn’t even a descent go-back function. For example when you zoom into a closeup view it will suddenly, and without warning go into a ground view function which totally changes everything, and you can’t get out or back up to where you were a second ago. Great praise for the programers and curses to the interface designers!]
Google Earth is the greatest program ever — until yesterday [April 20,2008] — when, after loading the current version 4.3.7191.6508 (beta), it became nearly impossible to control the zoom, and tilt functions. They changed the way the controls worked because quite frankly the previous controls were improperly designed, and did not work as intuitively as they should have worked. But, after a fit of trial and error, you can learn to use the old ones, or these new ones, and get very satisfying, and controllable images. Particularly satisfying are the movie like fly through images you can do in the 3D map view. Try flying through the Grand Canyon by copying and pasting into Google Earth the coordinates. 36.0969 -112.1988 This will require a little practice, but it is worth it. Unfortunately in an effort to correct the previous versions flight controls which didn’t work very well they replaced them with others which are just as confusing. Well, they sort of work but require some — what should be unnecessary — learning. Here is a screen grab view of these new controls:

Google Earth Controls

The N at the top when grabbed and pulled around the edge of the circle rotates the map around the center of the window. Also it has a second function and reorientates the map to North at the top when simply clicked once.

The ^ inside of the top circle, when pointed at develops a strange glow, and when held down or clicked repeatedly tilts the map toward the horizon, and creates a very satisfying 3D effect. The glow gives you a vague idea where your pointer is oriented between the variable control marks on the circle. Here is a screen grab view of Mt. Everest seen from the south showing the 3D effect.

Google Earth Mt Everest

I like to put the horizon, in the picture, just below the top of the window. The ∨ in the top circle when held down or clicked tilts the view back toward the vertical. If you very carefully move the pointing-finger to near the eye symbol in the center of the circle you can slow the speed of the tilting.

The < and > in the top circle rotate the view horizontally by just holding them down but be very careful when doing this to keep the pointing finger directly on the 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock arrow or the view will slowly rise or lower as it rotates, depending on how far the vague pointer is above or below the 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock position. If you keep the finger pressed inside of the eye symbol the view moves about in a smoother and controllable way but if you are outside of the eye it will move rather quickly and you can easily get disoriented. If you want to go to some point in space and just do a quick look all the way around the horizon just put the finger directly on the 3 o’clock > and hold it down. For example: for a nice 360° of the Himalaya mountains just copy and paste this number 27.440 86.825 into the coordinate box located in the top left of Google Earth screen, click it, wait a bit for the picture to stabilize, then hold down the ^ under the N for about 10 seconds until the horizon appears with mountains, and then point to the 3 o’clock position in the eye to rotate the visible picture around the horizon.

The < and > and ^ and in the bottom circle move the map horizontally in the direction of the arrow. This bottom circle looks almost exactly like the top circle and therefore creates unnecessary confusion. If it were a different color or perhaps a diamond shape this confusion would be instantly eliminated. This control’s function is based on the map lying flat on the ground. When you have the 3D map tilted and rotated relative to North it still functions left, right, up, down relative to the image on your screen, and not relative to the true North. That is just fine so long as you remember where you are, but when you get lost it is best to zoom up high, and get an overview to find your location.

The bottom control is a slider on a vertical pole. There is a counter intuitive plus + at the top which one would think takes you up but which in fact brings you closer to ground and a minus at the bottom which you would think takes you down but which instead takes you farther away, and a gripper bar in the middle which lets you slide between the two counter-intuitive positions. These controls have an additional weird counterintuitive function in that when you zoom in, and zoom out the window resets itself toward a straight down view on the map both ways. Thus when you zoom out and immediately zoom in you get verticalized both ways and you don’t return to where you started. Thus, when you zoom out and zoom back in and are in a different visual location and in order to get back to where you were you need to use the tilting arrows in the top circle. Well that sounds okay, but you soon discover that it is nearly impossible to touch those arrows without getting a little skew in and so it becomes impossible to return to an exact position which you just departed from just a few seconds ago. I hope there is an easy fix for this problem.

If you have a scrolling-wheel mouse it functions the same as the gripper on the pole. Another mouse function is that If you point to some point on the picture, hold the clicker down, and you can then drag the picture about. If you do this mouse drag quickly while holding the mouse button down, and release the button instantly during the drag the screen will continue to scroll. It is best to do this quick drag, and release operation below the center of the screen or it will scroll too fast.

After you use Google Earth for a while go in and turn on the various alternate special functions. I particularly like the photos that people have posted that show up as little click-able icons on the screen. After writing up this blog I feel a lot better about the new Google Earth release except for the inability to return to an exact location on the pole bar zooms. Also, they need to make the lower circle appear different from the upper one, a different color or perhaps a diamond shape would do nicely. With all of my quibbles I still believe this is the funnest program on my computer. Rather than just complain about their failings it seemed more productive to make suggestions for  redesign of the controls.

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Below is what the Google Earth controls should look like — drawn larger for easy viewing.

The Top polar-coordinate-reticule controls the tilt from sky to ground and is color coded. You press up on the sky to get to the sky and press down onto the ground to get more view of the ground. You press to the sides to rotate sideways and on the diagonal to go in those directions. The reticule gives you more precise control over the directions of movement.

The Middle polar-coordinate-reticule controls the orientation on the ground with the color coding representing the whole earth with snow covered white poles at the top and bottom and a green equator in the middle. The N is for dragging the map around the center point and for resetting the maps orientation to North when the N has been rotated away from the top position.

The Bottom altitude-ladder controls the height of the observers eye from ground level. It is symbolized by using a brick at the bottom and moving up through vegetation at the mid level and on up to the sky and then on to outer space, to the level of the star. There are tic marks for a few preset altitudes.

Polar Graphic showing new controls for Google Earth

This display seems a lot more intuitive to me because it makes symbolic sense. The existing Google Earth controls make no sense and because they look so very similar they are very easily confused. Because Google Earth does so many complex things — and does them very well — it is important to have clear easy to understand, and easy to use controls which are as precise as the program itself.

One additional thing. The pointing finger on the reference hand should have a blinking white to black triangular shaped finger nail which indicates precisely the pixel where the finger is pointing. The functioning trigger pixel at the tip should be flashing. The program is accurate to the pixel so the programs controls should be accurate to the pixel.

Update 2009/03/10 go to Google Earth HELP where these problems are now fixed beautifully. CTRL-right arrow rotates the screen and Point at a spot, right click and drag toward you and you zoom in – etc.

Update 2009/03/12 One of my ongoing problems is the location, latitude/longitude input window, entry box, in the upper left corner. It should accept any legitimate form of input, and when you make some silly mistake, offer you options for correcting that mistake. There are lots of ways to make mistakes, and the main Google Search engine does an excellent job of guessing what it is you thought you were inputting. It then gives you what it thinks you wanted and offers you a “Did you mean?” option. But no such luck with Google Earth, and when you type in 1233° which you might have meant either 123.3 or you double struck the 3 and really meant 123 it could easily say “Did you mean? 123.3”. But, instead you get a worthless “Your search returned no results”. If you type in a misspelled Mississipi in the standard Google Search you get a standard list as if you had typed in a correctly spelled Mississippi. But in Google Earth you get no response not even the near worthless “Your search returned no results”.

Where this becomes a real problem is when your settings are on Toolbar>Tools>Google Earth Options>Show Lat/Long>Decimal Degrees and a location is mentioned at some page you are reading in Degrees, Minutes, Seconds which you Cut and Paste into the entry box expecting to go to that location. What you get is a blank. Apparently you have to go in and make your settings fit manually every time someone else changes their reference system. Decimal Degrees OR Degrees, Minutes, Seconds OR Degrees, Decimal Minutes OR Universal Transvers Mercator—every time your source material changes. This seems like an easy fix with a drop down window offering those various choices whenever you type in something which is ambiguous. In fact maybe it should offer these options every time because it can never know the source of your input.