ISRO's Bhuvan: Far From Being A Google Earth Killer Anytime Soon

Indian Space Research Organization last week launched Bhuvan, the much anticipated satellite-based 3D mapping application that has been dubbed by many as the ‘Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Earth killer”. We have been testing the site, currently in beta, since yesterday, and can safely say that it won’t pose a challenge to Google’s popular service anytime soon.

While Google Earth works on a downloadable client, Bhuvan works within the browser (only supports Windows and IE 6 and above). The site was inaccessible for the better part of the weekend and even now, it gives up or hangs the browser every once in a while. When a layer (state, district, taluk, etc.) is turned on, it renders unevenly and sometimes fails to render at all. The navigation panel failed to load routinely and it felt like a rare sighting when we could actually use the panel.

But these are relatively minor quibbles compared with the biggest disappointment. The promise of high resolution images has not been kept. While the service promises zoom upto 10 metres from the ground level (this is contrasted with apparently 200 metres for Google Earth), we didn’t encounter a single image with nearly as much detailing. In fact, comparitive results for a marquee location such as New Delhi’s Connaught Place, shows why we won’t be uninstalling out Google Earth software anytime soon (click on the image to view a slideshow of images).

The navigation tools are similar to Google Earth (GE). The search doesn’t work if a query returns multiple results. A pop up window is supposed to give the multiple results from which the user is supposed to be able to choose. During two days of sporadic testing, we found the result only once. The rest of the time, the window would pop up, but nothing would be displayed. When the search is accurate, the software ‘flies in’ to the exact location, the same way as GE.

Users need to create an account and download a plug-in.

Bhuvan packs a lot of data on weather, waterbodies and population details of various administrative units. We were unable to access weather data. Clicking on icons of administrative units show basic information such as the population. For specialist users, Bhuvan might hold some attraction. For instance, there is a drought map which cab be used to compare drought situation across years and there is a flood map that shows Bihar during the Kosi flood and after. With Isro backing, Bhuvan would be able to provide such relevant data from time to time, but the application needs major improvements in terms of usability before it will be of interest to the ordinary user.

Users can also not edit any data or tag locations.

We hope Bhuvan is able to fix the bugs soon. But even then, to be a credible alternative to existing mapping services, and even to get new users to try it, it much provide much higher resolution images. User interest will be piqued only when they can see their house or school or local street in high resolution. With Isro data, this is easily doable.