WorldWide Telescope vs Google Sky

Google Sky was introduced in August 2007 as a part of Google Earth. It takes the idea of a zoomable Earth with high resolution aerial and satellite photography and turns it inside out letting you look at the nighttime sky. But, instead of pictures of the Earth, Google gathered photography from the world’s best telescopes and the deepest pictures of the night sky. It’s a fantastic application with a rich source of data and built on a foundation of Google Earth technology which many people are comfortable with using.
Microsoft WorldWide TelescopeFor the past few weeks, rumors had been building that Microsoft would be releasing a new product called WorldWide Telescope (WWT) which would be “significantly better” than Google’s Sky. Robert Scoble stirred the rumor when he said he saw a Microsoft product that “made me cry“. TechCrunch later said they guessed it was the new product WorldWide Telescope, which Scoble has now confirmed. (What I’m wondering is if Scoble had ever even seen Google Sky before all this) As TechCrunch predicted, Microsoft did briefly demo the new product at TED this week (see video below). Unfortunately, Microsoft said the product won’t be released to the public until sometime this Spring. Microsoft has put up a web page for WWT that shows kids and notable people’s reactions to WWT. It’s definitely a real PR spin – especially when you consider the product hasn’t even been released! So far I’m not impressed with what I’ve seen of WWT. There was nothing I saw in the demonstration of WWT at TED that Google Sky doesn’t already do.
To be fair, watching a 5 minute demonstration isn’t a way to make a fair comparison. I have spoken to some folks who have seen WWT up close and asked them how it compares to Google Sky. It is said the interface of WWT is very slick and the graphics perform very well. In demonstrations it could switch databases much more quickly than Sky (but, the demos may not have been with data streaming over the network). Some of the imagery in WWT has been better processed than Sky. Google’s Sky has a problem due to it being an extension of Google Earth – the “poles” are not handled well. WWT was not built on the roots of a 3D globe, so it doesn’t have this problem. Here are some interesting comments on WWT from Alan Boyle at MSNBC. One thing I haven’t seen anyone else mention: WWT doesn’t run on anything but Windows. That’s right, no Mac OS X, no Linux. And, it has been said WWT will only run on newer computers with faster graphics cards. One of Google Earth/Sky’s greatest accomplishments is that it works on a wide range of computers and graphics cards and all three of the major OSes.
The real test will be how well people will be able to annotate and extend WWT. Google Sky has had many people adding content to make it an even better project. Check out this planetary orrey, this real-time horizon, lunar eclipse predictor, and there’s a lot more. Already, Sky is available to the millions upon millions of people who have installed Google Earth (over 350 million installations at last count according to Google). Also, comparisons have been made between Sky and Stellarium (an open source planetarium program). I think Stellarium is a very slick and nice program. But, it’s more of a complement to Sky, not a direct competition. Stellarium doesn’t have the rich database of online server with terabytes of astronomy data like Sky (and like WWT will have). I suspect WWT will have some elements like Stellarium – more planetarium-like features. But, WWT is obviously more of a competition for Sky.
(Keep reading for the TED WWT video and conclusions)

Here is the video of the TED demonstration of WorldWide Telescope:

The three main features the presenter liked the most are things Google Sky already does: 1) lets you experience the universe, 2) let’s you tour the universe, and 3) let’s you make your own tours. To see this now in Google Sky – bring up Google Earth (Download GE 4.2 here if you don’t have it) and hit the “Switch to Sky” button in the upper middle of Google Earth. Try out the various tours you’ll see and dive into the universe right now.
Personally, as an astronomer, former planetarium employee, and computer graphics buff, I’m thrilled that Microsoft is going to be introducing even more astronomical data and slick graphics for us to play with for free. But, I think trying to make this as a big media event and part of its competition in the business world with Google is ludicrous.
Come back here in a few months after Microsoft releases theirs, and we’ll do a real comparison.

About Frank Taylor


  1. Hi Frank.
    Just curious… which planetarium did you work at?
    >> Mark

  2. I was not blown away by the TED demo video. It simply didn’t show me anything new that I haven’t already seen before. However, to me, the imagery in WT looked a little better than Google Sky’s, a little cleaner maybe. It’s the same sort of difference I see when comparing Google’s occasionally “foggy” street view images to Everyscape’s. But, I should’t really judge WT until I play with it. And of course, I know Google Sky will improve as well.

  3. Mark, I worked at the planetarium at my high school: Craigmont Planetarium in Memphis. And I wrote a program for students at Flandrau Planetarium at the University of Arizona.

  4. When is Google going to fix the issues with the poles? It won’t be that hard, would it?

  5. I was also not blown away during the demo video, especially after he mentioned that it was a preconstructed and recorded “tour”, meaning the system could easily run the tour before hand and gather all the imagery needed locally.
    It did look cool, though, and one thing that MS and Yahoo sometimes do better than Google is to make their maps simply look better than Googles. Google has gotten better, but Yahoo, for example, does a lot better job of smoothing their images and making where the images stitch together less obvious. Some of the blockiness at certain zoom levels in Google Maps is just horrendously ugly. This is something I noticed in the 1 or 2 times I’ve played with Google Sky, is that it’s like they just took a bunch of polaroid pictures and pasted them up collage-style, with no smoothing or stitching or anything. It looks like WWT did a very good job of making sure you are looking at a solid black backdrop for space, and the stars/galaxies are crisp, sharp points of light in otherwise empty space. No big blocks surrounding the starts, or images with different coloring sloppily stitched together.

  6. Stuart Goldman says:

    One thing that WWT will do that Google Sky doesn’t is connect to a computer-controlled (Go-To) telescope.

  7. What has been on my mind for quite some time is this. Take ‘Orbiter’, the great free space flight simulator. Equip it with state of the art graphics, sounds, a good GUI and connectivity. Add virtual deep space travel like in Celestia to it, add access to online data -like Sky View and WWT-, add access to 3D/4D models of objects, states and interactions of/in the universe even.
    Imagine seeing a supernova taking place from whatever position you choose in whatever time rate. Fast forward from a virtual telescope, real time or in slow motion from an imaginary space ship or from the surface of an alien planet. Watch the properties/things you choose. Or imagine landing on Titan for a walk, doing readings. Those kinds of things. Explore simulations, hypotheses and actual data in the way you want it.
    It could go further. If you were going to Earth you could be presented with common Google Earth/Live Maps views up to Street View level. Or even beyond, looking through virtual microscopes. A never ending exploration in whatever virtual shape you wish.
    This would be a genuine, realistic virtual reality which might even be used for social networking, 3D gaming, education etc. Google Earth/Live Maps will probably end up here eventually. Mobile devices with high speed internet, image/location recognition, sensors etc. would merge this virtual world with the real world where users add their own readings, data and thoughts.

  8. Nothing I haven’t seen before in Google sky, a very inspiring speech, and the movements from one place to another seem very smooth, like it goes fast at the beginning of the movement and slow down getting close to the objective. also some kind of a little inverse fish-eye effect to make it more 3D. oh! and the description window with the crosshair, giving you info about where the crosshair is.
    a real improvement would be that you could fly over the universe in 3D and see a galaxy from all sides including the solar system and view the earth small from one part of the universe.
    they could implement photosynth effect to their photos of the universe and make it look like a more 3D experience.

  9. Bill Bucolo says:

    WWT and Sky not withstanding, I think it’s much more exciting that so many more people will learn about the TED Talks (Technology Entertainment & Design) because of MS’s PR campaign. TED Talks has archived years’ worth of fantastic presentations by some of the brightest and most interesting people in the world.

  10. have any of you tried out Celestia yet?

  11. I use Stellarium for Linux and it blows Google Sky outta the water, I’m not sure if this WWT brings anything new to the table…. gotta get on a windows PC and try it out

  12. I loved celestia for a while now… and theres stellarium and starry night pro too… i have yet to try worldwide telescope (need to find a windows machine first), but Im curious as to how it is revolutionary as opposed to all these alternatives, including google earths own version?

  13. Winston Warner says:

    I have down loaded World Wide Telescope,But it is not connecting to the Internnet.Please help.

  14. Media16 says:

    Google Earth is better. Have you seen the MINIMUM requirements for WWT? Core 2 Duo 2 GHz, 1GB RAM, and recommend 10GB HDD
    Sounds like I’m trying to run Crysis or something…

  15. How about Google Sky vs WikiSky?
    In my opinion images and data quality on WikiSky is way better than Google’s and WWT’s, though browsing interface is not so smooth like WWT’s or Google Earth’s.

  16. Good news for Mac-user-astronomy fans… a pretty darn great web-version release of WWT for *any* platform is now in early (alpha) release. It’s already available for download at With no offense to Google, it’s really fantastic, especially at the poles & in terms of smooth zoom & pan. Also, the Tours all work, and a shift-click at any position gets users to Wikipedia, Journal articles, NVO searches for that position & more.

  17. Be honest with you, I don’t like this post. It’s so prejudice.Don’t judge a thing till you know what’s inside it. And it turned out that WWT is much better than Google Earth/Sky in terms of almost everything except the system requirements but that’s not gonna be an issue very soon. Don’t take it wrong, I love Google, but what I don’t love is the attitude of this blog post.

  18. i wish i could get the hands the futures technology such we can view the live movement
    such as if we go anywhere we can see us from satellite or laptop but this video was boring

  19. i have both and i think wwt is better beacuse it has solar system and you can see the moons of juipter(not the flowgo vid)

  20. Astronomer 206 says:

    Fans of Google Sky,

    WWT is better; dome support (8k), 3D solar system, 360 picture of the galaxy from Spitzer, Night Sky mode, ISS and many more amazing features. Google Sky online is very glitchy. Use WWT on any computer using a virtual computer or the Web client.

    Astronomer 206

Leave a Reply