Google Earth lets you do some pretty amazing stuff. You can record video diving into and flying over a city or neighborhood. You can also export satellite imagery and maps. While videos, aerial images, and maps are great for showing the spaces, cities, and specific locations of newsworthy events for two-dimensional stories, they aren’t great for 3D and virtual reality storytelling. Google Earth does have an extensive database of 3D models, but unfortunately there is no 3D export feature. I set out to find a work-around.
With this week’s Democratic National Convention in the news, I really wanted a 3D model of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, where the Democratic Party is convening this week. Photogrammetry is an imaging process for making spatially accurate maps and and three-dimensional models of real-world objects, buildings and landscapes. Many photogrammetric reconstructions use aerial photography, so I thought I could use the same process inside Google Earth.
Photogrammetry in Google Earth works!
1. Capture video of the 3D model in Google Earth Pro (free).
Download Google Earth Pro here.
2. Extract images from that video.
Use video editing software (I use Adobe Premiere Pro) or FFmpeg (free) to extract images from the video.
3. Process your images into a 3D replica of what you captured in Google Earth Pro.
4. I made a video to guide you through it.
5. Don't forget the necessary attribution.
Much of the imagery in Google Earth was provided by third parties. So definitely look at the attribution requirements for Google Earth. Reach out to the Google News Lab if you work for a media organization and want to use alternate attributions.
6. Publish your 3D model.
If you publish your extracted 3D content on Sketchfab, which is like YouTube for 3D content, the easiest way to handle attribution is to place the text on an image or flat color background which you can add to your model after it’s been uploaded. That’s what I did for the above Wells Fargo Center 3D reconstruction. Sketchfab allows you to add annotations, and embed your 3D content into web pages and Facebook News Feeds.
7. You can also make a virtual reality environment from your exported 3D model.
I used Unity to create a walkable environment of the Wells Fargo Center. You can even virtually walk on the roof! If you have an HTC Vive you can download the VR environment so you can walk on the building yourself.