Google announced today the launch of a new tool that will dramatically change the virtual landscape of the company's Google Earth product. Cities in 3D is the latest of several free offerings from Google designed to encourage content sharing -- this time, people in small to medium-size cities across the nation and around the world will have the opportunity to swap more content.

Cities in 3D will allow localities to share with Google the data sets of any buildings within a city, and Google will render them into 3-D models.

"We're inviting local government to produce 3-D data that they can make available to Google users so we can integrate it into Google Earth and provide a rich, 3-D representation of their locality on Earth," said J.L. Needham, Google's manager of public-sector content partnerships. "We see this as a content partnership -- in this case a public-private content partnership in the sense this is the government making its data available to its citizens by way of Google Earth." 

As it stands now, generally the only cities in Google Earth that can be viewed in 3-D are those with large downtowns and business districts. For the first time, smaller suburban cities and even rural towns can contribute datasets, which will help to create a much broader virtual world than exists today. 

For Google, the partnership means those who navigate Google Earth will have a richer user experience. For participating cities, the possibilities are almost endless: From public safety to urban planning, cities of all sizes will be able to enhance everything from tourism to public input on new development. 

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Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.