Google has surprised enthusiasts by unveiling a virtual reality version of Earth for the HTC Vive, with support for other VR platforms to follow next year.

Available as a free download from the Steam Store, Google Earth VR allows city flyovers, “cinematic tours”, and space travel, among other VR experiences.

“Ten years ago, Google Earth began as an effort to help people everywhere explore our planet. And now, with more than two billion downloads, many have,” Google VR product manager Mike Podwal said in a brief blog post.

“Today, we are introducing Google Earth VR as our next step to help the world see the world.

“With Earth VR, you can fly over a city, stand at the top of the highest peaks, and even soar into space.”

Upload VRwhich had one of the few detailed accounts of the surprise announcement – said Earth VR began four years ago as an extra-curriculum project among Google’s engineers.

In the app, there are 175 cities “with full 3D data” and “over 600 ‘urban cores” to explore as well.

The app was very well received by Vive owners, with many noting it helped justify their investment in the technology, and that it provided a glimpse into a future enabled by virtual reality.

It was also well-received by technology publications and VR watchers.

“Google Earth VR is the god-like virtual reality experience we've been waiting for,” Mashable said.

“The feeling of power is nevertheless immense, as the Vive controller lets you point at any area on the planet and drag the globe to find where you want to look next.

“It's not incredibly interactive beyond looking and viewing, but it's easily one of the most powerful VR experiences I've had in recent memory.”

“Already, just a couple hours after the Wednesday announcement, people are losing their minds about it — and that’s not an exaggeration,” Inverse said.

“It’s already convinced at least one intrepid user that our real world is, in fact, fake.”

Presumably, in addition to Elon Musk.

Upload VR, meanwhile, was impressed by the experience, even if it saw room for improvements.

“Freedom is what makes Google Earth VR such a truly powerful experience,” it said.

“Yes the visuals still need updating — when you fly all the way down to ‘human scale’ things tend to take on a bit of a Nintendo 64 aesthetic — but that limitation pales in comparison to the sheer possibility of this platform.”

Google provided a video of the types of experiences that are possible when using Earth VR.