Google Earth gets free premium content

Search engine vendor Google Wednesday unveiled the integration of topical new "featured content" overlays for its Google Earth Web site in a bid to provide users with more information as they peruse aerial images and maps.

The pilot project is a "new showcase of multimedia overlays" to give Google Earth users information from key premium content providers. Users will initially be able to access information overlays from the U.S. National Park Service, Discovery Networks, the United Nations Environmental Program, the Jane Goodall Institute and Turn Here, an online city guide service.

"We are excited to provide users with the opportunity to learn more about the natural wonders and manmade landmarks of the world with Featured Content for Google Earth," John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps, said in a statement. "We believe Google Earth is an excellent medium for organizing and sharing the world's geographic information and we continue to explore opportunities to bring visually compelling and informative content into Google Earth."

Users can access the new features by clicking on the "Featured Content" checkbox in the Google Earth sidebar after downloading and installing the free Google Earth application. Current Google Earth users will be able to access the new features without having to update their application.

Once a user clicks on a featured content vendor, markers will appear on the images being viewed, designating the special features. The featured content options will likely be changed periodically to showcase new offerings, according to the company, though some of the newer content sources may become regular features if they prove popular.

The new content providers, and the special features they offer, include:

- United Nations Environmental Program, which has provided an overlay that offers successive time-stamped images showing 100 areas of extreme environmental degradation around the world. The overlay includes images from the last 30 years illustrating deforestation in the Amazon region, the fallout of raging forest fires in sub-Sahara Africa and the decline of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

- Discovery Networks World Tour, an overlay that gives travel fans a chance to virtually visit major world attractions, cities,and natural wonders.

- National Park Service, which offers an overlay that enables users to learn more about all 58 National Parks in the country, including detailed descriptions, information on visitor facilities and information on more than 10,000 miles of trails.

- Jane Goodall Institute, which provides an overlay allowing users to "visit" Fifi and the other Gombe preserve chimpanzees and follow their daily exploits with the Institute's "geo-blog." Updated daily, the geo-blog shows off the Institute's research on chimpanzees and the effects of deforestation in Africa.

- Turn Here, which provided an overlay featuring free city video guides about travel, restaurants, hotels, local events and music around the globe.

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