Getting sky view through the Web

Tech

April 06, 2006|By DAVID COLKER | DAVID COLKER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

I can see your house from here.

Actually, I can see just about everyone's house from where I'm sitting: in front of my computer, looking at the online satellite/aerial photography services Google Earth and Windows Live Local.

Just type an address into the search boxes of these free services and you get overhead views that are stunningly clear.

As I write this, I can see the exact window in the Times building that is closest to where I'm sitting.

It's a bit unsettling, even though the view is not real-time. The photos of Los Angeles in both programs were taken, generally, in the last three years.

Dragging the image a few blocks from the Los Angeles Times, I can see the Walt Disney Concert Hall that opened in October 2003.

The two services show the building at different stages of construction. The best clue I spotted as to the timing of the photos was at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Both programs showed a view in which "USC" and "MICHIGAN" could be seen in large letters on opposing end zones.

The USC Trojans met the University of Michigan Wolverines in the Rose Bowl football game Jan. 1, 2004. The photo was probably taken in the days before the game because the stands appear empty and the field is pristine.

Privacy issues become more vital when you get close to home.

A friend in Los Angeles was checking out his neighborhood on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Live Local - which offers particularly detailed "bird's eye" views of some parts of the country - when he noticed a bright blue square in his neighbor's backyard. That seemed odd, he told me, because he didn't think his neighbor had a pool. My friend got up from his computer and peered over the back fence. Indeed, his neighbor had put in a small spa.

Overhead views of my yards are mostly obscured by trees. "You have natural privacy," said Steven Lawler, general manager of Windows Live Local. Lucky me.

But what about those people with more unadulterated views from above?

"It is understandable that when some people first see the aerial or bird's-eye view in Windows Live Local, they may get the wrong idea that we can zoom in to recognize them, read their car's license plate and otherwise obtain personal information from the images," a statement by Microsoft said.

Backyard pools don't seem to come under Microsoft's definition of "personal information."

The statement continued to say that "the image resolution provides more privacy than does the average flight proximity of a helicopter."

Microsoft also noted that it pixelated beyond recognition some sensitive national buildings, such as the White House.

Security and privacy concerns aside, Windows Live Local offers by far the better views in many metropolitan areas because of those bird's-eye pictures that were taken at an angle from low-flying aircraft. They allow you to see sides of buildings in addition to the overhead perspective.

But if the Web-based Windows Live Local (it can be found at lo cal.live.com) gives better eye candy, the Google program is easier to use and has been combined cleverly with the company's premier product, its search engine.

I maneuvered the beautiful globe graphic that begins the program (downloadable at earth.goo gle.com) over the Western United States and zoomed in on California. Then I entered my name in the search box. The program quickly determined that I could be found at the Times building.

Talk about unsettling. But it had computed that most mentions of my name in its search engine were in connection with articles for the paper. Clicking on The Times took me to a view of the building.

On the more practical side, Google Earth has a number of icons that can be triggered in a neighborhood view to show schools, restaurants, hotels, banks, malls and more.

"It's especially good for people who are thinking of buying a home in a neighborhood, or people who are going on vacation," said John Hanke, product director for Google.

Overall, practical applications are not these programs' strong point. Searches for people and establishments can be more easily accomplished on text search engines.

Google Earth and Windows Live Local appeal more to the voyeur in all of us.

I'm going to be checking out my neighbors for swimming pools. Summer is coming.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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