I’m starting to think that I’m wayy too interested in maps and geographical coordinates. Things like Google Maps and GPS just make me want to make something great out of all the information we have lying around and put in a map context. I think this is also the reason behind all the location based services, everyone is trying to see what would work. Most of them are fun experiments, but let’s see what sticks.

A building modeled in Google Building Maker
A building modeled in Google Building Maker

The one thing that reminds me that we do live in a future foretold by all the great 80’s sci-fi movies is Google Earth on iPhone and especially it’s useless feature where you can change the view by tilting the phone. It serves no purpose whatsoever, but it’s cool and feels like future. I think Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash really showed the vision what Google Maps/Earth ultimately could become (think real-time satellite feeds).

A while back magical elves generated buildings started appear in selected cities in Google Earth, which was also pretty cool. Unfortunately these magical elves were somewhat sloppy about the finer architectural points of our human buildings so most of them look like boxes - and, well, some of the 60-70’s era concrete buildings are in fact (ugly) boxes. So, when Google revealed their new Building Maker, I was pretty much hooked. It allows you to easily model buildings out of aerial photography. And if you’re good enough, those models might just end up on Google Earth.

This tool reminded me of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which was also interesting in how it allowed to harness the human processing capability to tasks unsuited to computers (or magical elves, who don’t grasp our architectural styles). Some might remember how it was used (unsuccessfully) to search for the remains of Steve Fosset’s plane. Google does have some experience in this fields as well, they did something similar with their Google Image Labeler, which paired random people in a game of labeling images. Unlike Mechanical Turk, Image Labeler was advertised as mostly harmless fun and a game to kill time for participants1. It is this fun part that I find really important in these things. I think Google accidentally or on purpose have also some fun elements in Building Maker, in addition to it’s crack-like addictiveness level.

The best thing about the Building Maker is that it runs in your browser and is dead simple to use. It’s fun. It’s like a small flash game, but instead of just wasting time you waste time in benefit of a commercial, listed company.

So, now I have 25 models worthy of Google’s acceptance criteria. It’s these accomplishments that keep me coming back to model things. Unfortunately, many models were rejected by Google and that of course isn’t fun. The main reasons for rejections so far have been “Incomplete texturing” and “Floating”. The frustrating thing about this is there’s very little I can do about these two problems. It’s a bit frustrating to notice that Google doesn’t have imagery for all sides of the building after you have started to model a building and short of renting a plane and taking pictures yourself there’s not much you can do. Floating is even more frustrating, because there’s very little hinting you can do to tell the modeling software that the box you’re trying to make should, in fact, be on ground level instead of floating couple of meters in the air.

Yes, if you want, you can import the model from Google’s servers into SketchUp and refine the model there, but that’s both extremely difficult and requires a lot of effort. Not fun, but maybe, just maybe, that refining could get your model listed…

This post was originally posted on Tech It Easy on November 16th, 2009. I ended up getting a T-shirt from Google Building Maker team, but after Google discontinued the tool and spun off SketchUp, my models are probably lost to the ether.