(Pocket-lint) - We've always been big fans of Google Earth. It's just so incredible to be able to virtually go anywhere in the world from the comfort of your own home.
So when we discovered that Google Earth had a VR version - including Street View - that was compatible with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift we couldn't want to get stuck in. The ability to go almost anywhere (so long as Google has been there with its 360 cameras) is potentially magnificent.
Google Earth VR review: Travel the globe in an instant
Initial experiences weren't as great as we thought they were going to be. Google Earth in VR just seemed to be bit blocky and unimpressive - but that's because locations take time to load and render. In a big city that means surroundings can look a bit like Minecraft initially, but they soon take on their full splendour.
The mechanics of Google Earth VR are simple. A quick tutorial walks you through how to navigate around your virtual world of choice and get used to the controls.
You start in outer space with a god-like view of Earth, then you can spin the globe and find a location that interests you. Clicking on the Vivecontroller's trackpad allows you to zoom down to the planet's surface for a closer look. As you get closer, you can then switch viewpoint so the ground is beneath your virtual feet. From this angle you have the ability to look around or start "flying".
Pressing on the trackpad allows you to zoom across the surface of the rock that we call home. Whizzing over mountains and fields, over cities, towns and oceans. You can click-and-drag to get to a location more quickly or bring up the search menu and jump straight there.
The quickest way to get to a location is to search for it - but there's something to be said for gliding above Earth - a bit like Superman. Many locations around the globe are also rendered in a 3D perspective, so you can stop on top of Mount Everest and have a look around or fly into New York City and see what the view is like from the top of the Empire State Building.
Using the controller to "grab" the sky allows you to spin day to night and back again. So not only can you go anywhere, you can also change the time of day and see what any location looks like when the sun sets. There's something to be said for standing at the top of a tall mountain peak staring into the Universe, pondering how small and insignificant you are. A great feeling comes with knowing you don't have to bother climbing down the mountain when you're finished too - just teleport off to the next location instead.
As well as zooming in and out, flying up and down and searching, you can also move location by simply looking at a small representation of the globe on your left-hand Vive controller. Pointing the other controller at it allows you to drop a pin where you want to go and be instantly transported there.
Google Earth VR review: For the virtual traveller
With the introduction of Street View, Google Earth has suddenly become a lot more powerful and a great deal more interesting. Load up Google Earth on the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift and you can quickly go anywhere in the world and see it through the eyes of someone else.
When we first tried it out we did the typical tourist thing: opened up search and looked for the most famous places we knew, like Hollywood Boulevard, the Sydney Opera House, the Taj Mahal, the Kremlin. We weren't disappointed with what we found either.
Searching takes you to the rough location and drops a marker pin on the location you're looking for. You then use the controller to put the Earth into flat mode and zoom in. Clicking on a virtual bubble above the controller you can enter Street View of that location. We found that most of the time it took a moment for the location to render properly (not surprising when you consider a number of pixels being presented) but once loaded it looks incredible.
In addition to clicking you can virtually raise the Street View bubble to your face for a quick view; dropping your virtual hand again takes you back into the standard Google Earth view. In this way, the bubble acts as a portal to the Street View world that you can just stick your head through to see if you're in the right place.
Street View either shows travellers Photospheres or Google's own footage captured by cars or cameramen. Thus, when you're at a popular tourist spot you can usually choose from a selection of different images and various angles of the same location.
One thing we're disappointed with is was the lack of freedom of movement once you're inside Street View. Unlike in Google Maps on a desktop computer - where you can essentially navigate around the location - each Street View point in Google Earth VR is static. You can activate it, have a look around and leave again, but you can't move.
Google Earth VR is an incredible experience. Being able to travel the world from the comfort of your own home without all the hassle of booking expensive flights is fantastic. There's no need to worry about crowds with virtual tourist spots either. It'll be an enabling service for many.
We also thoroughly enjoy feeling god-like when cruising across the Earth's surface or changing day to night. Dropping down to ground level and taking in the views is something special.
Street View adds even more value to that experience, as you can not only see what a location looks like but get an up-to-date first-person view of it from a variety of angles. However, the static view here is a little limiting at present.
As a freebie, Google Earth is a must for anyone who owns an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset. It's a truly astounding experience for anyone and everyone, which is as easy to access as it is beautiful.
Google Earth VR is available to download for free on Steam.