3D textured cityscapes are nothing new to Google Earth users: international cities such as New York have displayed this type of imagery for a while now. But now Google has made an important, but critical change to Google Earth - adding high resolution Street View imagery to existing 3D city textures and vastly improving the resolution of the facades.
Now, instead of navigating flat city maps, or greyed out skyscraper blocks, you can literally zoom into a city and hover above ground level and get a sense of the city from a pedestrian or driver's view. Well that's the idea. Only a handful of international cities have received the treatment, including London, Cape Town and not surprisingly, New York.
Google's New York example (below) seems to illustrate a better architectural sense of the materials used in the buildings (you can make out which building has wood veneers, which ones are glass, etc.) and the overall scale of key New York landmarks.
The richer map detail aids navigation by offering a clearer layout of the city, from the pavement all the way to the penthouse.
But Google isn't the only company keen to pull off this 3D satellite trick; Microsoft's Bing isn't far behind. More than 100 cities can already be viewed by Bing Maps, and much of their panoramic, 360 degree imagery utilises Microsoft's Streetside images in key metro US and international locales. It doesn't hurt that Bing's version of 3D New York looks good too.
Bing's live video demonstration
Bing also has some impressive features on the horizon. In a key TED speech in February this year by a Microsoft developer, interactive panoramic 3D images were shown displaying a busy Seattle fish shop. The demo used Flickr images taken at different times of the day and combined with Bing's maps site - something that's being dubbed 'crowd mapping', and also opens the door for augmented reality applications to be used with smartphones.
Lucinda Barlow, Google's head of corporate communications, told us that updated 3D imagery of Melbourne is already appearing in Google Earth, while Sydney is yet to receive the same treatment.
But, that doesn't mean enterprising amateurs can't get involved at home. Google is now taking submissions for user-generated 3D building models, created with their 'Building Maker' program, a free download. And best of all, if Google really likes your stuff, they'll publish it as the default image in Google Earth.
As for 3D Sydney maps, hopefully it won't be too long now before Internet users get to virtually glide around the historic Rocks district, take a ferry to Manly and climb the harbour bridge, all at the click of a mouse.