Google Earth creator visits KU
The 200 million users who regularly log on to Google Earth to virtually explore our planet can thank KU alumnus Brian McClendon, e'86.
The electrical engineering alumnus created the technology four years ago, when he helped found a Silicon Valley venture called Keyhole. In homage to his hometown, he made Lawrence the center of the planet—at least according to Google Earth's default setting. In fact, the setting zeroed in on his family's former home: O Building in the Meadowbrook Apartments complex. Since Lawrence satellite imagery was upgraded, however, the precise setting is now a few yards south, in his former building's parking lot, less than a mile from KU's western entrance at Iowa Street and Bob Billings Parkway (or 15th Street, as most alumni remember it).
McClendon, engineering director for Google Geo, returned to KU Feb. 23 as the keynote speaker of the Engineering Expo, a School of Engineering tradition since 1911. During his presentation, area schoolchildren zoomed from continent to continent online, with McClendon as their guide.
After putting Google Earth through its paces, McClendon began to illustrate his new concept, in which the global imaging tool combines with other programs to create new effects. Essentially, all the world is a platform on which users can deploy infinite varieties of software. He first showed a Web page that displays real-time flight patterns around Amsterdam's international airport, each color-coded to visualize noise levels created by individual aircraft.
Then McClendon called up examples of remarkable 3-D building models—fashioned out of a new, free software program called SketchUp—layered over the basic Google Earth format. First he dropped the view from low Earth orbit to land directly alongside an exact replication of the Eiffel Tower. Then from Paris he zoomed west, all the way to his house in California.
Approaching McClendon's home, the computer-generated view was spectacular in its detail, down to his white dog in the driveway. But he didn't stop at the exterior; his demonstration continued directly through the walls and into the home's gorgeous interior.
With the chorus of "oohs," "wows" and applause, McClendon knew he had won over his young audience. He explained that any user of Google Earth can download SketchUp for free and begin modeling structures that can then become permanent additions to Google Earth.
"We built Google Earth as a platform, always imagining these ways for building on top of it," McClendon said. "Over time, hopefully we will have a completely modeled Earth. It will take awhile, but there are a lot of people with a lot of interest in doing it."
Including the engineers of tomorrow in the audience, who learned from McClendon that his career has provided unexpected rewards. "It's emotionally satisfying knowing how many people are using a system you've created and how many ways are being found to build on top of that platform," McClendon told the schoolchildren. "I've had a great time in engineering."