Best of Google Maps and Google Earth 2011

Using these Google tools, you can now see the insides of large stores, views of the world's magnificent mountains, and a record of the devastation of Japan, among many other advancements.

Best of Google Maps and Google Earth

Most people today use Google Maps to find local schools, malls, and the closest Starbucks, according to this year's GoogleZeitgeist, which catalogs the top searches of 2011. But there was more to Google Maps--and its desktop sidekick, Google Earth--over the past 12 months than finding the fastest way to get your Caramel Macchiato fix.

In 2011, Maps and Earth cataloged the massive earthquake in Japan, local businesses and museums joined Street View, and Maps went inside buildings to help you get your bearings in airports, shopping malls, and big box stores across the United States.

Here's a look at the best of Google Maps and Google Earth from each month of 2011.

January: Fresh 45-Degree Imagery

Google Maps kicked off 2011 with some new 45-degree imagery for 10 U.S. cities, including Albuquerque, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Tucson. The 45-degree images in Maps are aerial photographs taken from a 45-degree angle that offer better views of a location than the grainy satellite imagery. The search giant first introduced 45-degree imagery to Google Maps in 2010, following Microsoft's 2009 rollout of the Bird's Eye View feature in Bing Maps.

Google also introduced the Follow Your World web app that can send you email notifications to let you know when new imagery has been added to Google Earth and Google Maps.

February: Off-Roading in Street View

In February, Google added more "off road" images to Google Earth, including images of the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Ireland; Balboa Park in San Diego, California; and the Château de Chenonceaux in Civray-de-Touraine, France.

The search giant also got romantic on Valentine's Day with a blog post featuring locations from gushy, romantic movies, such as Notting Hill and Love Actually.

March: Japan Satellite Imagery

After the devastating and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan, Google sprung into action to provide fresh satellite imagery of areas that had been heavily impacted. Google's other relief efforts included a "Person Finder" to help locate displaced persons, as well as a collection of Google Maps with information about electricity black-outs, road conditions, and emergency shelter locations.

April: Mountain Tour

April was mountain month for Google Earth: Google added new tours of some of the world's most famous peaks such as Mt. Everest and the Matterhorn. Google also added panoramic shots of post-earthquake Japan by photographer Akila Ninomiya in April.

After tornadoes ripped through the southern United States, Google added new satellite imagery to Google Earth and created a collection of tornado touchdown reports in Google Maps. This disaster relief work highlighted how Google Maps and Google Earth can deliver a unique way for you to see the impact disasters have on affected communities.

May: 360-Degree Businesses

In May, Google announced the rollout of a new Place Pages feature that lets you take a 360-degree photographic tour of store interiors such as Nashville's Gruhn Guitars and Comics Toons N Toys in Tustin, California. Indoor mapping was a big theme for Google Maps in 2011; it started with Street View tours of some of the world's most famous museums in February.

June: Live Transit Updates

Partnering with transit agencies in Boston, Portland, San Diego, and San Francisco, Google Maps in June launched a feature that let you find out if your bus or train was running on time in real time. Live transit updates let you see live departure times for your bus or train, as well as service alerts. Transit updates are accessible on your PC or on a mobile phone running Android 1.6 or higher.

July: Japan Disaster Zone Street View

During the summer, Google's Street View cars were hard at work in Japan chronicling the country's earthquake disaster zones. Google said it wanted to do this to show the level of devastation that hit Japan, and also to digitally archive Japan's disaster landscapes for future generations. The fruits of Google's labors came online in December through Memories for the Future, a site showing pre- and post-disaster imagery.

That month, Google also added an extremely handy feature to Google Maps that let you download a specific map area to your Android mobile phone for times when coverage is spotty and you can't get online to access Maps.

August: Land Art

Google Earth got a new virtual tour in August highlighting the Rhythms of Life project by Australian sculptor Andrew Rogers. Rhythms of Life is a collection of 47 massive stone sculptures in 13 different countries that involved the help of 6,700 people around the world to create. Google also added desktop voice search to Google Maps for users in the U.S. running the latest version of Chrome in August.

September: Helicopter View

The fall season started with a new feature that lets you preview your driving route in 3D. All you do is input your driving directions query into Google Maps as usual using your departure and destination points. To see the 3D effect, you just have to click on the 3D play button in the driving directions side panel. Google said the new feature was like viewing your driving route from a helicopter.

Carlton Books in September also published a global treasure hunt using Google Earth that included a $65 thousand prize for the top armchair explorer.

October: One Billion Downloads

Google Earth software program hit the one billion download mark in October since Google first launched the desktop app in 2005. The search giant also added photos of the scenic Swiss Alps railways to Street View.

November: Google Goes Inside

Google announced a new Google Maps feature in November that lets you view maps of large indoor locations on your Android device, including shopping malls, airports, and retail stores such as Ikea.

November also saw the addition of images of ski slopes courtesy of the Street View snowmobile. These include Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada, and Colorado's Breckenridge Ski Resort. If the slopes aren't your thing, Google also added an online tour of New York's High Line Park, a fantastic example of urban reclamation.

December: Google Earth on 48 Screens

Le Pavillon de l'Arsenal in Paris used Google's immersive Liquid Galaxy project, which lets you experience Google Earth on large displays, to put the desktop app on 48 screens. The project highlights what the Paris metropolitan area will look like in 2020 and includes 3D renderings of buildings under construction or in development. The display can be controlled from four different multi-touch screens, and the 48 screens use almost 100 million pixels to render Google Earth.

Last Wednesday, Google also rolled out a new version of Google Map Maker to encourage users to add more detail about their neighborhoods to Google Maps.

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