Let's be real: It's been a pretty stressful year. The tragedies never seem end. Harambe was shot dead in front of children. David Bowie and Prince died unexpectedly. Oh yeah, and the US elected a screaming giant cheese wedge to be the next president. All of this bad news might want to make you just run away for a while. Now, there's an easier way to do it.
Available in the Steam store today for free, the new version of Google Earth lets anyone wearing the HTC Vive headset walk the streets of the most iconic cities in the world, dive through canyons like a hawk and float around in space, staring at the pale blue dot from the abyss.
The launch of Google Earth VR comes with a bunch of guided tours to make it easier for anyone that doesn't have great geography skills or simply wants to learn something new about a place they have never been to. Sites like the Amazon River, Grand Canyon and Manhattan skyline are among the few dozen locations that you can choose from.
As someone who wrote the Gizmodo HTC Vive review, I had a lot of familiarity with the games and other VR experiences available for the headset, so I decided to try out Google Earth VR. I downloaded the software in about a minute, launched the program and was greeted with a short video.
The experience starts with a guided tour of all of the things you can do in Google Earth VR. You'll see a preview of different cities, mountainous areas, desserts and other cool landscapes. When the video ends after a little more than two minutes, you're left staring at the Earth from space.
A small annotation on the controller shows you how to zoom in, spin the earth and pick a location to go to. The controls are actually really simple. When you press the trackpad on the left controller, you zoom in and out. You can zoom in all the way to street level, so you can walk around.
When you press the trackpad on the right controller, it tilts the Earth, turning it into a flat surface so that you can walk around. You're basically transitioning from looking at a globe to looking at a flat Earth similar to the way you would on Google Maps. The transition sequence between a spherical Earth and flat one can be a little startling. It also makes it difficult to explore at times.
It took me about two minutes to learn the controls. The software projects an image of the Earth in front of you that appears to be roughly the size of a movie theatre screen. So if you accidentally zoom in on the wrong area, it can be a pain in the arse to get situated. Just like a lot of other VR experiences, once you get the hang of the controls, it's smooth sailing.
My first goal in Google Earth VR was to visit my hometown of Chicago, and once I figured out the controls, I basically just pointed at the Great Lakes on the globe and kept zooming in until I could see Willis Tower in all of its glory. I flew around to some of my favourite locations and revelled in the fact that I could basically tour the city with no effort.
Then I decided to jump over to Arches National Park in Utah. I had no idea where on the map it was, but I was able to take a shortcut to it using the built-in menu that I launched from the controller. When I arrived, which took about 20 seconds total, I was in awe of the scenery. I felt like Dr Manhattan in Watchmen when he flees to Mars to ponder the meaning of life. I, too, have been in a reflective state, and as I stared out into the dessert, I was able to disconnect from the reality that I was actually sitting in a fluorescent-lit office.
The whole experience was awesome — until it wasn't. After spending about 20 minutes touring the globe, jumping around to my favourite cities like New York and Tokyo, and also visiting some nature sites like the Amazon, I got a massive headache. My eyes were completely strained by the transition screen between navigating the spherical globe and walking around on a flat map. My head still hurts as I punch out these words on my keyboard, and to be totally honest, I can't wait to stop looking at my screen.
So it turns out Google Earth VR is an awesome experience, but it's hampered by some of the same problems that all VR experiences are. In short, if you play around in the headset for too long, your eyes and and your head will start to hate you. So if you're looking for an easy way to escape, Google Earth VR is something you should legitimately consider trying — just don't wander the globe for too long.