City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Descending through the artifacts, Powers of Ten-like, we pause finally, hovering above the city, rapt with attention. I could spend all day exploring this Google Earth, but it strikes me that there’s a couple of extensions I’d like to see. Neither of which are easy, but why should that stop idle speculation?

Whilst pawing Barcelona around – incidentally, what an awkward combination of movements Google Earth engenders? Grabbing, dragging, clawing, zooming, revolving, tilting. A haptic interface would seem more suitable to the object – I realised how well the application describes the form of the city. The beautiful, rigorous grid of the Eixample is clearly discernible, block after block interlocking neatly with those unique chamfered corners. At street level, the variegation in architecture and generous spacing disguises this economic, adaptable layout. In Google Earth, the traces of ancient city walls are perceptible too, a serrated edge separating the density of the Ciutat Vella from the Eixample.

Google Earth images of Eixample (l) and Ciutat Vella edge (r)

My overwhelming sensation at this point was a desire to slide the city back through its development, to watch the port developments shrink back on to land, to see the Eixample retreat block by block, to watch the city walls rise up again … And then slide it forward. I’m still reading Joan Busquets’ Barcelona: The Urban Evolution of a Compact City which is no doubt influencing my thinking. Combined with Barcelona’s expressive form, it’s too compelling a desire.

So I fabricated an image of a Google Earth application with an interface control for ‘time’. I shifted things round a bit to make room for a horizontal slider control with which you’d be able to pull back the imagery through time. Of course, it would be possible to simulate satellite images for all of this, creating a smooth CGI morphed retreat of the city walls back to the original Roman settlement. However, I’ve used period maps instead. Whilst this creates a harsh disjunct as the differing styles of cartography clash, I personally prefer the texture this adds, a true sense of time conveyed by the worn maps, typographic development and varying material. From the 20th century’s rationalist monochrome accuracy via Cerda’s famous 1859 plan to the simplified, warped perspective of two maps from around 1706 drawn on vellum or canvas.

Google Earth showing Cerda plan

There is almost unlimited potential here – including overlaying different periods, annotations, a more suitable user interface etc. – but just in terms of conveying an idea, there’s a basic value in working within the confines of the current Google Earth interface too. Here’s a crude example:

Click for Google Earth through time animation Click this image to see a rough animation (GIF, 870kb), indicating maps of Barcelona morphing back from 2006 through 1970, 1930, 1859, 1854, 1740, and two from 1706.

If we deployed Google Earth’s tilt control, we could even sneak in Wijngaerde’s drawing of the western sector of the city from 1563, showing the Rambla and Church of El Pi:

Google Earth Barcelona in 1563

All maps are taken from Busquets or the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Historic Cities project.

The second extension that I’d like to see is actually one that wouldn’t be visible at all. After accumulating a few hours of virtual city stalking, it occurred to me that it’s all so quiet. 10000 feet up, one might expect not to hear anything. Closer to the ground, 70 feet up, we’d surely have a sense of the sound of the city? Imagine being able to turn on ‘sound’ and hear the sounds drifting up to meet us celestial listeners to Google Earth. There are numerous field recordings available – with plenty more to follow once location based services really kick off – with which we could augment the images with some richer representations of earth. I recently noted Metropolis Shanghai, which has brief sound excerpts such as ‘In the hustle of the Bubbling Well Road’. Could we hear this – and others – as we begin to zoom in to the Bubbling Well Road and set the time to 1938?

Listen to ‘In the hustle of the Bubbling Well Road’ [AAC file, 1127.1K], from ‘Metropolis Shanghai’

Again, in Barcelona recently, I quickly compiled the following list of representative sounds over a day or so: the gas man calling out to inhabitants of the Ciutat Vella; howling monkeys in the zoo pretending to be errant teenagers; a desperate woman, begging in Barceloneta, wailing a beautiful, desolate, ancient-sounding song; kids everywhere, all hours; skaters outside the MACBA; rubbish trucks outside our hotel on C/ Argenteria a little too early in the morning; numerous church bells, drawing tides of people scurrying down the slender streets; the bewildering babble of Catalan; thumping Eurotechno in Seats, failing to drown out the whine of circling scooters; a million hissing coffee machines; the sizzle of grills behind windows in ground-floor kitchens … How vivid a representation of the city to hear these sounds; how interesting to hear the sounds change as you move around the city; and how about combining the sound feature with the ‘time slider’, as with the Bubbling Well Road sound above?

Google Earth, despite being the most fascinating application of recent months, is ultimately a somewhat dry, utilitarian device, as with Google itself. The fact it can generate coherent directions from A to B via major interstates is actually neither here nor there, ironically. And yet it inadvertently creates a near transcendental experience. Perhaps we should split the sourcecode at this point, with one interface tending towards utility, and the other built for experience, expression and learning, started by adding a checkbox for sound and a slider for time.


17 responses to “Sketchbook: Two possible Google Earth extensions: time and sound”

  1. Dan Avatar

    The all-seeing Paul Hammond sends me a link to Dr Andrew Hudson-Smith’s blog, where Andrew has already embarked on this mission – by creating a Google Earth KMZ file with an overlay of a London map from 1690, in which you can modify the transparency to explore the differing layout. Beautiful. Andrew’s blog seems to be sprouting endless Google Earth models of London architecture, as well as providing a richly-illustrated commentary on 3D models of cities in general. Fabulous stuff.


  2. Mikel Avatar

    On time navigation (in 2D) there’s been some work in worldKit
    History of Urbanization:
    Tower Hamlets, London, Planning Applications:


  3. davblog Avatar

    Maps and Time

    Dan Hill has a brilliant idea – adding a time slider to Google Earth so that you can trace the…


  4. paul schutze Avatar

    Methinks there are more pressing observations to be made this week about Google’s relationship to the earth. Do we really believe that while blocking ideologicaly problematic search attempts made in their brave new territorys Google might not be prevailed upon to log the ID’s of those making the attempts. Yahoo famously passed on the details of “dissident surfers” to the Chinese. We may assume these people have either joined the ranks of those regularly tortured and executed or are at best languishing on one of China’s luxurious prisons. Not the time to be singing the praises of Google!!


  5. Dan Avatar

    Fair point Paul. My timing could have been better. To be honest, I started writing this post about three weeks ago and had I posted then I wouldn’t have gone back and re-contextualised it. Perhaps that’s my failing, but this is also why I keep ‘comments enabled’ on my site (despite the daily delivery of comment spam to deal with) – to provide context and reaction over time. Personally speaking, I find Google’s stance dubious. Although I don’t agree with an isolationist approach to working with China, neither do I agree with so-called global products not exposing their own implicit ideologies. Nothing is clear here, and while ‘The Californian Ideology’ is outdated now, as a title alone it still has value – in essence, pointing out that, despite an impressive track record for innovation (within certain areas), the structures behind many such ‘Californian’-based projects can not and should not be applied to environments or cultures with radically different histories, whether they’re centuries or seconds old. (Matt Webb made a related point once.) However, I don’t think they should bend entirely towards this particular local culture, but I don’t find their current compromise workable. I’m also aware of the irony of having Google ads on here and am looking at alternatives.
    My original post above attempts to address a possible ‘benevolent extension’ to the application, which might actually add to our understanding of the relationships between culture, time and place at a basic level – if articulated correctly. But perhaps that was implicit, hidden. Your comment quite rightly highlights that such applications are social/cultural objects and thus have hegemonic power with ramifications outside the interface layers. Again, if people want to address these aspects here, please do so (elsewhere, The Guardian points at subversion of the Google logo amidst other reaction); if you want to comment on the idea, please do here too. If there were alternatives to Google Earth which could be seen as fora for such ideas (over and above Microsoft’s Local Live) then please post comments on those too.


  6. Dan Avatar

    Emmet Connolly has some interesting perspectives (o-ho) on mapmaking, comparing a 16th century map of Edinburgh with Microsoft’s Local Live:

    “maps are more than representations of places; they reflect a time and outlook. read a map, and find the lie of the land in more ways than one. there are layers of history, reason, thought that have influenced why a place has been abstracted precisely in the way it has … (With Local Live) the map is becoming less abstracted and more literal, more tactile, seemingly coming full circle to a literal representation of my place within a wider world view. is mapmaking returning to a medieval approach to representation? what is this saying about how we think about location and ourselves? why now?”

    Mapmaking and the archeology of the future


  7. Timo Avatar

    On the sound ideas, there are existing projects attempting to create sound mappings like Soundtransit and The Road Online. I’m sure someone can – and will – mash it up.


  8. Dan Avatar

    Momus recently posted about shifting perspectives in maps, noting that Google Earth’s view is rather, er, top-down.

    “(I)t may also be that Google Earth is itself an American perspective on things, because it’s a top-down perspective, and America is a very top-down place. For instance, I defy anyone to use the program without thinking, at least briefly, of Pentagon footage of missiles destroying ground targets in the first or second Gulf Wars … Perhaps, if Japan had invented Google Earth, we’d have seen, instead of the simple top-down view, something like the characteristic 45° elevation view of gyaku enkinhou, an Asian representational tradition used in the 12th and 13th centuries, then again in the 18th and 19th … Sure, we never actually see the world this way (which of us will ever see the world from a satellite’s point of view either?), but it’s in many ways more realistic than a simple top-down view; it allows us to see objects for what they are, and where they are. So far, my main reaction to Google Earth is “What the hell is that?” I can see where something is, but, since I don’t spend a lot of time floating across rooftops, not what it is.”

    This comparison of the Western perspectival vanishing point with the 45° elevation view is interesting – and you can see the same shifting perspectives in the 18thC Chinese illustrations and maps currently at the ‘Three Emperors” exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Jack Schulze also has a lot to give on these matters …


  9. sevensixfvie Avatar

    There’s also David Rumsey’s collection of historic maps, viewable with a java client that has the same type of GIS-like interface that Google uses. No slider, though, just different dates in layers:


  10. Dan Avatar

    Ogle Earth notes that Google Earth CTO Michael Jones is already on to this time browser idea, after this earlier public demo of Google Earth. There’s a 40 minute video [150mb, MPEG] of the presentation, which is pretty fascinating. (More notes here.) Ogle says:

    “He also shows off a tool that he calls a time browser, and uses it to “scroll” through a dataset of place markers according to their time stamps, so that they are displayed in chronological order. I don’t believe that’s in the current publicly available beta.”

    In the presentation, Jones uses the prototype time browser it on a database of UFO sightings in North America. Although the dataset is banal, the tool looks promising. Depends on what databases you have to play with. Again, city borders and urban form would be fascinating, although I’d still prefer to see cartography folded in there somehow. Far more interesting.


  11. no, 2 self Avatar

    today’s links – Mapmaking and the archeology of the future’…While it’s technically interesting, impressive, geeky, and all that, I think it’s interface also illustrates a shift in what we’re perceiving maps to be…’cityofsound: Two possible Googl


  12. Eric Rodenbeck Avatar

    Those interested in urban forms morphing over time might find something to like here;
    GPS data from taxicabs in San Francisco, viewed over time. Red is fast, white is slow. There’s more where this comes from – should launch in the next week or so.


  13. Joerg Weber Avatar
    Joerg Weber

    Can anybody give me information about adding new GUI elements to google earth (like the slider for the time)? It would be nice if somebody tells me where i can find information about writing google earth extensions.
    Thanks in advance


  14. davblog Avatar

    Trackback: Maps and Time from davblog: “Dan Hill has a brilliant idea – adding a time slider to Google Earth so that you can trace the…” [Read More]


  15. no, 2 self Avatar

    Trackback: today’s links from no, 2 self: “ – Mapmaking and the archeology of the future’…While it’s technically interesting, impressive, geeky, and all that, I think it’s interface also illustrates a shift in what we’re perceiving maps to be…’cityofsound: Two possible Googl” [Read More]


  16. jt Avatar

    You may wish to have a look at TimeMap ( I work with a number of the developers and have watched the application develop over a few years. They’re in the process of releasing the application under an Open Source license (GPL and LGPL) too.


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