Jan. 29, 2013 at 6:28 PM ET
On Monday, Google officially updated North Korea on Google Maps. Thanks to crowd-sourced data, the area is no longer blank, but instead includes markings for just about everything — right down to the locations of its prison camps. This isn't the first time Google Maps (and its 3-D counterpart, Google Earth) helped reveal previously obscured — or even unknown — geography.
In late 2011, Google Maps images called attention to strange patterns etched into the surface of China's Gobi Desert. There were speculations that the patterns were related to weapons-testing sites or even messages from aliens, but the consensus, according to Natalie Wolchover of Life's Little Mysteries, was that they were satellite calibration patterns.
Another pattern found not far from there, a "Stonehenge-like arrangement of objects radiating outward, with fighter jets parked at its center," is likely used to test radar from space.
Google Earth, another aspect of Google's geo project, has also helped an archaeologist discover ancient Egyptian ruins.Much of the excitement over that discovery evaporated though as — after some initial confusion regarding whether they ruins were previously undiscovered pyramids or other formations — it turned out that at least some other researchers were already aware of this point of interest.
Thanks to Google Maps' Street View, folks have been exploring areas they may never see in person. For example, thousands of images from Australia's Great Barrier Reef and other coral locales were stitched together into 360-degree panoramas, so that anyone can take a trip from the comfort of his or her own desk.
"This will allow the 99.9 percent of the population who have never been diving to go on a virtual dive for the first time," said Richard Vevers, project director for the Catlin Seaview Survey (which worked in partnership with Google to capture images for these panoramas), told NBC News when the project was first publicized.
Ancient Mexican monuments such as Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza and Palenque are also included in virtual tours, along with countless businesses which, as part of an extension to the Google Street View project, allow users to virtually explore building interiors.
Sometimes Google's mapping products can cause controversy. When a data glitch related to Google Earth's underwater seafloor imagery led to the appearance of a grid-like pattern, some proclaimed it must indicate the existence of Atlantis. The "evidence" of the mythical city's presence disappeared as soon as Google incorporated fresh data and smoothed over imaging artifacts.
At least one mapping controversy ended with new research, however. When a Nicaraguan general alleged that Google Maps displayed erroneous borders between his country and Costa Rica. The secretary general of the Organization of American States was sent in to examine the area and resolve the cartographic drama.
And then there was that time a Google Street View car ran over a donkey — or at least appeared to. "Over the last 24-hours concerned members of the public and the media have been speculating on the fate of a donkey pictured in Street View in the Kweneng region of Botswana," wrote Google's Kei Kawai in a blog post. Fortunately for Google, the car took many photos, and a review of them clearly showed the donkey moving aside safely. "I'm pleased to confirm the donkey is alive and well."
Google's not above showing us what's behind the curtain in its own data centers, either. Thanks to Street View tours of the interiors of the company's previously unseen buildings, we now know that Stormtroopers and R2 units guard our precious data.
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