Skip to main content

Alumnus Maps the World (and Beyond) With Google Earth

Posted by on Friday, September 11, 2009 in Fall 2009, In the Field.

One of the Internet’s most innovative new applications, Google Earth, was developed by Chikai Ohazama, BE’94. Google Earth ( makes it possible to see the entire planet (or even just the house you grew up in) in 3-D online.
One of the Internet’s most innovative new applications, Google Earth, was developed by Chikai Ohazama, BE’94. Google Earth ( makes it possible to see the entire planet (or even just the house you grew up in) in 3-D online. (Screenshot: Gray Buildings©2008 Sanborn. Image©2009 Terrametrics. Data U.S. Navy SIO, NOAA U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO.)

When Chikai Ohazama graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Engineering in 1994, the world stretched in front of him. Today the world stretches before everyone, thanks to Google Earth and Ohazama, the former biomedical engineering major who helped develop it.

Ohazama, BE’94, used engineering, geographic information system (GIS) technology, 3-D mapping and imagery skills to develop an application that would literally enable people to see the world in new ways. That project became Google Earth, the online service that incorporates satellite imagery, aerial photography and other sources to allow users to pinpoint their houses, grade schools and places they’ve always wanted to visit.

Rather than deeming Google Earth’s success as a dividing point in his life’s timeline, however, the 37-year-old considers it simply a point on a road map. That road map has taken him from studying biomedical engineering to research in 3-D ultrasound visualization to developing Internet technology—and all driven by ideas that interest him.

“I guess the simple answer is that I want to work on stuff I’m excited about,” says Ohazama, product manager for Google Earth.

“Giving people an experience they had never had before was tempting. And so was the technical challenge.”

~ Chikai Ohazama, BE’94

The technology that made Google Earth, originally called Earth Viewer, possible was only just starting to evolve when he began working on its development, Ohazama says. The software compiles vast amounts of data from various sources and crunches it down for delivery online. “At that point, being able to fly through the world in 3-D, using GIS technology mapping and imagery, could only be done with really expensive graphics systems,” he recalls. Opportunity came with the expansion of the Internet. 3-D technology became widely available on laptop and home computers. “The idea of taking all of this, and making it accessible to the everyday person, that became pretty exciting to me,” Ohazama says. “Giving people an experience they had never had before was tempting. And so was the technical challenge.”

Aiming for Academia

That challenge was a far cry from where he thought he’d end up. Growing up in Florida, Ohazama long had an interest in both biomedical engineering and computer science. He came to Vanderbilt because he was, in his words, lucky enough to receive an impressive scholarship and because VUSE was one of the few schools where he could earn an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering.

“When I was an undergrad, my mindset was that I would be a professor,” he says. “I would do some research, I would get my Ph.D., and then be a professor at a university. I never anticipated I would go into industry, working in Silicon Valley.”


While at Vanderbilt, Ohazama took classes from Robert Galloway, professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering. He also worked in Galloway’s lab.

“Chikai took advantage of the opportunities that Vanderbilt presents, and that’s what made him go. It was never, ‘Oh, do I have to do this?’ It was, ‘Cool! I can do that?’ With those sorts of people, it’s not so much that you mentor them, as much as you just try not to screw them up,” Galloway says. “You realize there’s something magic there.”

When it came time for his doctorate, Ohazama chose Duke, Galloway’s alma mater. “He did exactly what I expected he would do at Duke, which was excel there as well,” Galloway says of his former student. “With everything he does, he has a willingness to be excited. He has the courage to do new things, and then he has the discipline once he’s started to see them through. That sort of combination is remarkably rare.”

A New World of Technology

Moving west, Ohazama joined Silicon Graphics in 1998. Two years later, he co-founded Keyhole Inc., where his background in 3-D and medical imaging paid off as he worked on combining geospatial data and gee-whiz graphics. When Google acquired Keyhole in 2004, Ohazama was part of the deal. Now as a director of product management, Ohazama leads the revenue generating efforts for Google Maps and Earth, as well as manages the global high-resolution imagery database and the systems that organize all the geographic information of the world.

These days, Google Earth—now in version 5.0, presenting historical imagery as well as ocean floor and surface data from marine experts—is being utilized in ways Ohazama admits he never imagined.

In addition to humanitarian efforts, such as assisting in fire fighting in San Diego and studying the impact of Hurricane Katrina, he says he’s heard of people using the technology to track airplanes in midflight, propose marriage and find unusual things like capsized ships and meteorites. As of mid-2009, Google Earth had received more than 500 million downloads.

“It’s pretty amazing how broadly it’s been used,” he says.

Mapping His Own Path

Ohazama continues to work on projects he’s excited about, both at Google Earth and in his personal life. The one-time biomedical engineering student is a musician, as well, with his efforts available on iTunes. He has written for theater and documentary films and produced a couple of albums: one in a room all by himself, and the other with session players. He’s also enjoying being a husband—he married in 2008.

The Internet technology guru is quick to credit his parents with his work ethic, and says hard work and persistence always pay off. But if he has any real advice for others who hope to follow his trajectory to success, it’s simply this: “Do what you love.”

“My theory is that you may do many things that you don’t enjoy,” he says. “But eventually you will end up doing what you enjoy, because you can’t stand not to. So you might as well just go ahead and do it. … Know what excites you, stay true to what you want and keep your eyes open to opportunities.”