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When I think about Google Earth, I have one of those “sci-fi moments”. Had someone told me about Google Earth 15 years ago, I would have only been able to imagine it as part of a science fiction movie. And yet, this tool is at our disposal today, and what’s more, it’s completely free to use.
There are many things you can do with Google Earth: You can discover amazing places and visit places you’ve only dreamed about, you can experience nature and views without leaving your armchair, you can explore the stars, follow the sun, and do cool things on Google Earth you might not be aware of. There’s even a Google Earth iPad app worth checking out.
But there’s one other thing you can do with Google Maps and Google Earth, something that takes a little more skill, but can help you share stunning trips and tours around the earth with anyone. Recording your own virtual tours in Google Earth is also a great way to remember your trips, and re-experience them (to a degree) at any time. Recording a Google Earth KML file might sound complicated, but as soon as you get the steps pat, you’ll be wanting to record more and more.
Before We Start: Some Key Terms
Before you can record your Google Earth tour, there are some important terms we should get out of the way. First of all, you’re going to need… Google Earth! So go ahead and install that before you get started, in case you haven’t already.
Now that you’re all set, open Google Earth and get to know the interface a little better. As mentioned above, there are many things you can do with Google Earth, but for virtual tours, there are only a number of features you need to know about.
On the main screen, also called the 3D viewer, you can see the Earth. Drag it around, zoom and in and zoom out, add or remove layers via the Layers menu, and find the places you want to include in your tour. It’s easy enough.
The basic elements of your tour are going to be:
1. Placemarks: pinpoints places you want to include in your tour. Add these by clicking the yellow pin icon (see the red rectangle in screenshot above).
2. Polygons: used to mark entire areas you want to highlight such as parks, islands, or any other area you want to show that a placemark can’t do justice to. Add these by clicking the polygon icon (see rectangle in screenshot above).
3. Paths: want to show a great path through a city or park? This is the tool you need. Add a path by clicking the icon with three connected dots (see rectangle in screenshot above).
4. KML/KMZ files: these are the formats you’re going to use to save your tour. KML stands for “Keyhole Markup Language” and contain geographical information. KMZ is the compressed version of KML, and if you create a narrated tour, you’re going to have to use that to combine the maps and narration into one package.
Each of these options has additional features which we’ll get into shortly, but for now, familiarize yourself with these concepts before you move on to the next step, creating your tour!
Creating The Virtual Tour
There is more than one way to create and record a virtual tour with Google Earth. I’ve tried several, and today I’m going to focus on the one that’s easiest to create, and also easiest to share with others.
The first thing you need to do is, naturally, decide which places will be included in your tour. Browse around, or use the search feature, and when you reach a spot you want to include, click the pin to add a placemark.
You can move the placemark around to get it in the right spot, and give your placemark a name, a description, and even add links or images (these need to be online in the form of URLs). To make things interesting, you can change the pin’s color, as well as the text’s, and even change the pin’s altitude. If you want your tour to open on Google Maps as well, make sure you choose “Relative to ground” in the tab for altitude.
When you hit OK, the placemark will be added under the Places menu on the left, and you’ll be able to quickly access this point again by double-clicking on it. Add as many of these placemarks as you wish.
To add a polygon, click the polygon icon, and give your new polygon a name. At this point don’t close the polygon properties window, it needs to be open in order for you to draw your polygon.
Here too, you can add links and images, and change colors as you see fit.
You can add new paths in just the same way. Click the path icon, give the path a name, and draw the path with your mouse. Here, aside from colors and such, you can also set the path’s measurement units to anything from miles or kilometers to smoots or nautical miles.
Every time you add a new placemark, polygon, or path, they will show up under Places, until you accumulate a list of places you want to include in your tour.
Now that you have your places, you’re ready to record your tour!
Note: At this point, you can right-click My Places and choose “Save Place As…”. You’ll get a KML or KMZ file with all your chosen spots, but it will not be a real tour, just a list of places you or others can load to look at later.
Recording The Virtual Tour
In theory, you can skip to this part without preparing your places in advance. When recording, you can simply browse the globe looking at places, and having a ready-made list is not a must. It will, however, make your tour much smoother, so I highly recommend making at least some preparations.
Ready to record? All you have to do is click on the tiny video camera icon called “Record a Tour”. You’ll find it next to the old placemark, polygon and path buttons you already know. When you do this, the recording window will open, giving you two options: record, and narrate.
To create a silent tour, click the regular record button. To create a narrated tour, or even tour with a musical soundtrack, click the microphone button.
As soon as you start recording, everything you do with the map becomes part of the tour. Therefore, I found that the best way to create a polished tour is to set the map to your starting point before you start recording, hit the record button, and then start double clicking your saved points one by one to automatically go from one to the next. Anything you click on while on the 3D viewer will be shown in the tour.
When you’re done, hit the record button again, and your tour will automatically start playing from the beginning.
If you’re happy with the result, click the disk icon while the tour is playing, which will save it to your Places. Make sure you do this before you do anything else, or you might lose the entire tour.
Now that you have the tour under Places, you can save it as a KML or KMZ file. Right click the tour and choose “Save Place As…”
You can save the tour in either KML or KMZ format, but if the tour is a narrated one, make sure you choose KMZ, or the tour will be saved without the audio.
Ready? Create A Tour!
That’s everything you need to know to create a basic virtual tour on Google Earth. There are many more aspects and features you can add to your tour, of course. For example, you can use the Sunlight feature to include light and dark animations of the sun, use the historical imagery to create a tour from past to present, use the weather layer to enhance your tour, and more. It’s all a matter of how creative you want to be.
Creating a virtual tour is so easy, you may get addicted after doing it once, so be warned!
What are your favorite uses for Google Earth? Do you have cool tips to share about creating virtual tours? Tell us everything below!
Image Credit: Virtual tour of 360 degrees panoramas via Shutterstock