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Google Earth's 360-Degree Views Let Users See the Big Picture

Gapang Beach, Pulau Weh, Indonesia on Google Earth and on 360cities.net. (Image credit: Martin Broomfield.)

Thinking of taking a vacation in Indonesia, but can't afford the plane ticket? It's now possible to see what it's like to stand on the beach at Pulau Weh island without leaving home foggy waters at your feet, mangroves at your back.

Google Earth has added a new layer that adds 360-degree panoramic photos submitted by people from around the world to what is already a virtual globetrotter's paradise. The panorama photo viewer is similar to Google Street View, but for places where roads don't go.

Photos of exotic places are a Google Earth mainstay, an on-the-ground complement to the eye-in-the-sky that lets you spy down on any location in the world (or your own house). The new 360-degree panoramas not only pull virtual visitors out of the sky and plant them on the ground, but also immerse wannabe tourists completely in the virtual voyeurism.

"You actually fly down into the photo and really see what it's like," said Peter Birch, product manager for Google Earth.

Diving New Caledonia Amedee Island on Google Earth and on 360cities.net. (Image credit: Richard Chesher.)

With the new panorama images, users can twirl around inside a school of tropical fish or, if they choose, admire a beach sunset and then turn around to peer into a forest.

The "photos" layer on Google Earth now features both regular 2-D photos submitted by Panoramio users (Panoramio is a part of Google) as well as the new 360-degree panoramic photos submitted by users of 360cities.net.

When the "photos" layer is turned on, red square icons throughout Google Earth alert virtual travelers that a 360-degree panorama awaits. Users can then click the squares for an info bubble. Click the image inside the bubble to open the panorama. Drag the panorama with the cursor to enjoy a 360-degree view as if you were standing in that exact spot.

New Caledonia, the island nation east of Australia, and Lion's Head, South Africa, are a few great places users can test drive the new panoramas.

Twin Peak, near San Francisco, where Birch rides his bicycle for a workout, has one of his favorite 360-degree panoramas.

"Now I can actually get the view without doing the ride," Birch told OurAmazingPlanet. "It's cheating."

Brett Israel was a staff writer for Live Science with a focus on environmental issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from The University of Georgia, a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, and has studied doctorate-level biochemistry at Emory University.