If you got hooked long ago on the blockbuster video game SimCity, you're gonna love Google's latest rollout. Called Building Maker, it's the newest part of Google Earth, and it lets you put on a virtual hard hat and hit the construction site.
We got a chance to give it an early try, and it's clearly Google's way of getting users more involved with its software. Google Earth lets you swoop around world landmarks or take a virtual dip under the sea. But Building Maker lets you design buildings on your computer, store them in Google's online warehouse, and eventually enter your 3D design in a contest, where the prize is a slot for your creation in Google Earth.
With your Google account, you can access photos and design tools to unleash your inner computerized Howard Roark. You can also use Google SketchUp to edit as you go. Available in 14 languages, Building Maker can now be used to duplicate 50 cities worth of actual buildings, with the company promising to roll out more cities in the days to come.
Is there a catch? Not really. The tool is free, but get this: By taking in your design expertise, Google benefits from what's called "crowdsourcing," updating Google Earth not via its workforce but via its user base. While getting ready to build, you can report back to Google about changes in your local area. It's sort of like you working for them, but without the stock options and free meals.
If you wax nostalgic about SimCity, always wanted to give architecture a try, or are just looking for something a little more mind-stimulating than a typical shoot-'em-up game, give Building Maker a test run. It's a good way to get your virtual hands dirty, and it's vastly easier to use than most building-design software. And it just might give you a little extra appreciation for the building you're sitting in now, and the people who put it there.