Why Google Doesn’t NEED Sketchup Anymore

Matt Donley News, Tips & Tricks, Uncategorized 21 Comments

Sketchup has always been known as an easy to use 3D modeling tool. With its intuitive interface, it has claimed the motto “3D modeling for everyone.” With the recent acquisition of Sketchup by Trimble, Sketchup is no longer under the Google umbrella. Many people have wondered why Google sold it. But to answer that question, you must first understand why Google bought it in the first place.

Google’s quest to model the world

Google has an ongoing, ambitious goal of mapping the world. This vision is delivered via Google Maps, and Google Earth. The two programs share many similarities in the way they show maps and satellite imagery. While I don’t want to go into great detail about the features and differences between the two programs, the main distinction is that Google Maps is a web based application, and Google Earth is a program that gets installed on your computer.

In 2004, Google announced that it had acquired Keyhole Corp, a digital mapping company. The technology from Keyhole is what became the beginning of Google Earth and Google Maps.

Google Earth started out as a 3D model of the globe, with 2D satellite imagery pasted continuously on the surface. Even though there was some terrain data integrated into the 3D part of Google Earth, the images were still pasted flat to the surface. Therefore, if you were to fly over a city, all the tall buildings and land features would appear flat on the ground.

3D buildings in Google Earth

Google Earth buildings in 2005

In 2005, Google started to extrude the outlines of buildings in order to create a rough 3D model. There were no textures applied, and a lot of the building details were lost. All the buildings had the same grey looking surface. It lacked realism.

Google realized they would need to do something else in order to take their 3D model of the world to the next level. At the time, the only way to create a realistic model of a building was to manually create each one. It would cost way too much to hire people to create all these models, so instead Google looked to the community to create the models for them.

Enter Sketchup.

Sketchup modeling for Google Earth

Sketchup buildings in Google Earth

When Google acquired Sketchup from @last software in 2006, Sketchup was already being used to place models into Google Earth. In fact, @last software had collaborated with Google in developing a plug-in that would allow people to integrate their Sketchup models into Earth.

By providing Sketchup to the world for free, Google had introduced the world of 3D modeling to millions. People were using Sketchup to model all sorts of things, including buildings and landmarks to be integrated into Google Earth.

Over the years, more and more cities were being modeled all over the world by people like you. But there were some drawbacks to this method of using Sketchup models in Google Earth.

Why Sketchup is not the perfect solution for modeling Google Earth

There are numerous drawbacks to crowd sourcing the modeling work for Google Earth. Most of the problems are a result of having many different people create models, as each person may have different methods for modeling. They also have different perspectives on quality, causing inconsistencies between models.

  • Inconsistent image data would be used to texture the buildings. Whether it was aerial images, user images, or sometimes it would be an artificial texture, many models would look different from each other depending upon the image source.
  • The quality of each model differs, as a result of having many different people create the models.
  • Not all buildings are modeled. Each building is manually modeled. If someone hasn’t created it, it won’t be in Google Earth.
  • Placement of buildings is not always accurate.

Google has recently announced a new technology that automates the process of creating 3D models in Google Earth.

Automated 3D Models with Stereo Photogrammetry

Stereo Photogrammetry at it’s core, is calculating the geometric properties of an object by comparing multiple photographs taken at different perspectives, and producing a 3D model of the object as a result. The technology is not new, although it has become more accurate over the years. Sketchup plugins such as PixDim and PhotoSketch use similar technology to create 3D models from images.

To create 3D models for Google Earth, an aircraft will take multiple parallel passes over an area and capture high resolution images of the same area from multiple perspectives.

(Curious, I wonder if they are using the Gatewing UAV, owned by Trimble???)

Using that image data, a complete 3D model is created of the area. Not only are the buildings modeled, but all the trees and other smaller landmarks as well. The result is a realistic 3D model, complete with accurate photographic textures. The videos below show the stunning results of this technology.

Sketchup was replaced

As you can see, Sketchup became obsolete for Google. They have developed a technology that can create 3D models almost automatically. The drawbacks of using manually created models have been eliminated.

  • Image data is consistent. Each pixel color is created by analyzing all photos of an area and selecting an average color for that pixel location. This makes the entire map consistent in its coloring.
  • The quality is amazing. The result is a life like view of the earth, as if you were flying over looking out the window of an airplane.
  • Using Stereo Photogrammetry, potentially all buildings and landmarks can be modeled in Google Earth.
  • Placement of each object is highly accurate when compared to the manual placement of models from Sketchup.

Currently, the new 3D models in Google Earth are only available on the mobile platform. It is available in limited cities at this time, so Google is still accepting Sketchup models to be integrated into Google Earth for the locations that have yet to be modeled. Wherever the new automated 3D models are being created, all existing Sketchup models will no longer be visible from Google Earth. They will, however, still show up in the 3D warehouse.

So if you’re like myself, and haven’t done too much geo-modeling, it doesn’t look like now is the time to start. I was thinking of participating in the “model your town” competition next year, but I wonder if they will even have it now that they have this new technology.

What do you think of this 3D modeling method for Google Earth? Leave a comment below!

Comments 21

  1. thanks for this article. i never really understood how the public modeling would work. i love sketchup and use it for all kinds of ideas but based on whats in the warehouse the quality of models varies greatly. the concept of modeling the earth is fantastic but, i think its best left to the experts.

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      I think the consistency and quality offered by this new technology speaks for itself. Plus, it is potentially easier to update the “global” model by having a new set of images created. Otherwise, you’d have to manually keep track of changes manually. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Looks good from 5000 feet….how about from 50 feet. Will there be tools available to get down to the street and detail? What kind of mesh will it be? Leaving many questions about the future of arch-vis on the SU/GE platform.

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      Speaking of street level, I wonder if they will be able to apply this technology to the existing image data gathered from the Street View crew. 3D models from the ground level, integrated with the aerial imagery…

  3. Great in-depth explanation of the Trimble transition.
    Makes me wonder how long it will be until I can get a digital camera with Photogrammetric capabilities. The “Photomatch” feature of SketchUp would be automatic: take a few pictures of a room, building or object, import it into SketchUp, and POOF: instant 3D model with colors and textures. It’s only a matter of time…

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  4. Interesting theory Matt, but I seriously doubt hassles with crowdsourcing “Earth” models was the reason Google wanted to dump SketchUp. They could have just turned it off at any time and defaulted to their newer technology. What I’m waiting for is for someone to actually interview somebody from Google. You could be that guy – why don’t you try to talk to somebody inside the old SketchUp team?

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      Hi Joe! It’s well known that Google purchased Sketchup for the main purpose of having 3D models created for Google Earth. Google was never interested in being a 3D modeling company. They just needed a way to get 3D models into Google Earth. So when the technology was available to replace Sketchup, they saw no need for it anymore. It wasn’t valuable to them. It didn’t add to their general purpose. I am curious to know your thoughts on it though. Why do you think they got rid of it?

      And as far as interviewing someone from the old Sketchup team… The “old” Sketchup team is the “new” Sketchup team, meaning Trimble hired all the personnel from Google in order to keep the Sketchup team together. They are building them an office in Boulder as we speak. I wonder what kind of confidentiality agreement they are under as far as “Google secrets”, but that’s a great idea to try to reach out to them.

  5. You know, I understand why Google would switch to this newer technology to model the present day earth. But, as a historian, specializing in “built heritage”, I’ve been using SU to recreate non-extant, historic structures and place them in their original locations in GE. I hope the Trimble takeover doesn’t lead to a degradation in that aspect of the SU/GE functionality. In fact, while I understand why Google is concentrating on creating the existing 3D world within GE, from my perspective (and I’m sure many others), I think being able to toggle between the current world in 3D and user generated, Google vetted, historic 3D “dioramas” would make GE a far more interesting place.

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      Hi Steve,

      You bring up a great point. I guess you could think of it as 4D models. The fourth dimension being time. To have the ability to dial back in time to view models of historical buildings and landmarks is so valuable, I would hope Google would implement some sort of capability to preserve those types of models.

      I grew up in a very old and historical town in Rhode Island. So I can appreciate the need for preserving our history. What a great way to do it using Google Earth. I hope you are able to continue your contributions.

    2. Steve, I am so grateful to read your comment. I am currently creating a 3D sketchup model of a house that no longer exists. GE has the aerial view of this house but not street view. The street view shows the new apartment building that displaced the house I am modeling. Fortunately, I have all the photographs necessary for a street view model and even detailed interior photos from all angles. How may I submit my finished model to GE for proper timeline placement? Would you also know how I might preview the model in GE street view rather than GE aerial? (The houses across the street haven’t changed much so the present streetviews will suffice.) Is there already info on the web that answers my questions? If so, I have not been successful in finding it. Thanks! (Great article Matt! Now it all makes much more sense to me!)

      1. First, I want to thank the author for this… worrying article.
        Steve and Don: I write my comment so late, so you don’t read it.
        I am looking after a platform to recreate a whole (or areas) of an East European city where old buildings have been destroyed.
        So, it is 4D applying.
        I believed Google maps/earth and Sketchup were the solution.
        Did you reached progress with your modeling work?


        1. Hi George,
          I am just now reading your reply. How did you make out with your historical buildings of eastern Europe?
          Yes, I made my models and continue to work on them. They will never be “finished”. Some are on GE 3D layer. Most were not current structures, but they are in the Trimble 3D Warehouse (“Northdale Past” by Lancaster).

  6. It is correct that Google obtained SU for it’s modeling/populating Google Earth, Microsoft purchased trueSpace and gave it away for free hoping it would catch on such as SU, it didn’t. I can easily see Google dumping SU for the reasons mentioned, it isn’t a big money maker as well. Nice and informative article.

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      Wow, I never even heard of Truespace before. I guess it’s discontinued now?? I feel like there are a bunch of 3D programs out there that’s I’ve never heard of. When I was first introduced to Sketchup, I thought it was the only one of its kind. Obviously, I was wrong.

  7. Great article, Matt. I knew a lille about why Google purchased SU but not in detail like you explain here. And based on this SU being sold to Trimble suddenly makes much more sense. I was very sceptical at first about the take-over but especially after reading this I feel more and more certain that SketchUp now is in good caring hands. 🙂


    – Kristian

  8. Hello. It looks like Google Earth just started rolling out Google Earth using Stereo Photogrammetry models. I have to say that they are not that good. I just zoomed in on 9900 wilshire blvd and the building look terrible. They actually look like some of them are falling down. I think for important buildings they should keep the sketchup created structures as they are better than the blobs Google Earth is replacing them with

  9. I knew that Google was upgrading to a new means of mass-upload of 3d data that would outmode sketchup but there are 2 fundamental flaws with this system. 1: the new 3d data is difficult to toggle on/off and therefore should people wish to see user uploaded buildings, they can’t. The only way to deactivate it is to go into the tools options and disable the “legacy 3d”. The new data should have a box under the 3d buildings layer so it can be toggled like the other building layers. 2: The data being uploaded is of the same typical bias used in the “trees” layer, that being, it is almost exclusively America-centric and the majority of the outside world is forgotten. Being from Australia, I see little to no 3d of this type even is the largest cities (except Adelaide) and none in Tasmania where I live. If this method is comparatively simple to use, then I’d appreciate it if more of the world was included as it is Google “Earth” not Google America.

  10. Though I agree you and now “land” on Google earth and see what car is in my driveway.
    Look at Oman in the Middle East they have some amazing buildings. “I Heart U” is a home there that belongs to the Sultans Aunt. It is plane to see by Google earth over view. But land and it is FLAT as a table top. When are they going to start mapping the Earth?

  11. I think you’re overthinking this. As an employee of the company that bought Sketchup (Trimble Navigation), and someone who works closely with the Sketchup staff, I always thought Google sold it simply because they couldn’t find a way to make money with it. The only income Sketchup gets is from sales of the Pro version. I think (but have no evidence) that they sold it simply because there’s not enough margin in it for them.

    I haven’t talked to the Sketchup people about it, but I don’t get the impression that they know any better than you do why they were sold.

    Maybe the good question isn’t why Google sold it, but why Trimble bought it.

    1. Perhaps they bought it for the same reason Autodesk bought Generic CAD, or Cadence bought OrCAD – eliminate the competition for their professional product. Left to develop on their own, these low-cost products would eventually provide almost all the functionality, and in a much easier to use program.

      We can only hope that Trimble will manage the balance between free and paid versions more like Cadence and less like Autodesk.

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