Populating Google Earth

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Google Earth gives its users access to hi-res satellite images of the entire planet. Add to this the ability to integrate 3D CAD building designs and you’ve got a pretty compelling solution for the construction industry.

March 14th proved to be a very interesting day in the industry, as almost overnight Google Earth appeared to become the hottest property in the AEC/Civils/Geo and Utilities markets. Stuff the publishing format war of PDF vs DWF, the place to publish your geospatial related data is on Google’s (planet) Earth. This is globalisation but not as we know it.

Bentley Systems will soon be launching MicroStation XM, a major update to its foundation 2D and 3D modelling tool. All of Bentley’s vertical products are built on this platform, everything from Architectural solutions, to Civil, Process Plant and Geo. One exciting new feature will allow users of its XM and current V8 release (to be delivered after the XM version) to publish both 2D and 3D data to end-user created Google Earth maps. This could be anything from 2D gas and utility pipes, to roads, a 3D process plant model, or a proposal for a new HQ building. There’s even a capability to include links to PDFs, AVI movies or links to related website data.

Using Google Earth’s KML format, data sets can be wrapped up and sent via email, or URLs can be used to automatically take the recipient to the Google Earth location displaying the accurate MicroStation data (which may include stored views and embedded documents). If the resolution of the satellite data is not high enough (as this varies in Google Earth), the raster data can be also extracted from MicroStation and laid over the existing texture.

The data that comes out of MicroStation is extremely accurate, more accurate than the pixel width images in Google Earth, but the examples I was shown in a demo on March 14th indicated that the accuracy is good enough for most jobs and to see the 3D design accurately portrayed in its intended position on the planet was stunning.

In one example, we went through several design variations of a proposed building ‘on site’, flew around it, and even ‘opened’ it to see floorplans which were originally PDF documents. Bentley is also making a lot out of the fact that, as MicroStation can also handle AutoCAD DWG files, it’s the only solution that can collate and publish to Google Earth data from multiple systems.

The quality of the rendering is basic, but this will be improved on in the coming year. However the combination of live 3D data and Google Earth promises much. One example took us to the Philadelphia Convention centre, (which had been modelled in MicroStation) and by clicking on embedded links, animations of how the cladding was applied to the building launched within the session.

“This is the biggest thing to hit the computer industry since the spreadsheet!” said Ray Bentley, Executive Vice President, Platform Group. “If you think about a hotel owner, they could publish a model of their hotel using Google Earth on their website. As potential customers view the model it would be possible for them to click on links in the windows to see the views from each room before they booked. This is only the beginning!”


Bentley’s customers include nearly all of America’s Departments of Transport (DOTs). This capability will allow them to add accurate 2D/3D roads to Google Earth and examine potential changes to routes, additional roads and assess the impact of any major construction work. Or the models could be used for planning purposes.

It seems this capability will be built-into the core MicroStation product on launch, where raster satellite data can be brought in and added to 3D models. Then using a simple Latitude and Longitude reference point, the whole site can be pre-prepped to drop into Google Earth. While Satellite data needs to be added by the user at the moment, Bentley is examining the possibility of referencing the satellite overlay in Google Earth to bring into MicroStation. There may be copyright issues with this but hopefully these can be resolved.

Been Googled?

Just as the demo was coming to a close, Roopinder Tara, editor of Tenlinks emailed me the link that stated Google had just purchased @Last Software and its popular SketchUp product, which is popular with architects for conceptual design, and already has a Google Earth plug-in. Rumours of this deal had been longstanding and it had seemed to be stagnating but the announcement means that Google will now have a tool that will enable many, many users to create 3D models and visualize them in Google Earth.

From Bentley’s perspective it’s good news and bad news. There’s synergy in the messaging and more 3D content on Google Earth will mean more 3D data for Bentley’s customers to include in their Google Earth environments. The bad side is that perhaps the Google news will eclipse Bentley’s innovation in the same area, as Google buying anything is big news.

It appears that SketchUp will continue to deliver the product that has been a rave success, but will now have the backing of a computer industry giant. This was probably good news for the @Last team, as Autodesk is about to launch the latest version of AutoCAD (2007), which appears to have taken their lead from many of the features in SketchUp. Google’s motivations are perhaps not all that obvious, other than the growing link between Google Earth and SketchUp’s ability to allow users to ‘populate’ its planet. In the future, the possibilities seem endless. Will Google Earth eventually become a virtual 3D blueprint for all our cities? Could historical models be created and stored as our cityscapes change, allowing us to roll forwards and backwards in time from any point in space or time?

For the industry as a whole, which has struggled to promote and ‘assist’ users to move to 3D – the news is that Google owns a great, easy to use 3D creation tool and will distribute it, promote it and invest in it. It appears to be the biggest kick in the backside this industry has ever had. Suddenly 3D models are cool, Google Earth is the platform and Bentley has suddenly been promoted to leading the charge at the professional-end of this new digital geocentric paradigm.


www.bentley.com / www.sketchup.com