It was a pleasure to test the new view available for Google Maps users. The product is called “Street View” and it offers something, which might be called an extreme zoom view. Instead of a simple map with street and building outlines you can get actual photos of the given place, just like you were there. The feature was introduced during Where 2.0 conference organised by O'Reilly.
The idea to take a city-wide series of photographs is not that new. I remember that already in 2005 the A9 search engine offered a similar product. Unfortunately it was not too good, and A9 apparently didn't grab enough attention on the market, so today it's just a meta search engine based, among others, on Live Search (MSN). Even earlier, in 2004, a group of students of the famous Stanford University started a project called CityBlock. As many good things created at the school, the idea was genius, simple and useful: one mounts a camera on a car, perpendicular to the direction of driving and a laser to measure the distance. Then just start recording and go for a ride through the city. The resulting images are then stitched together into a long strip representing one side of the street. Of course, perspective correction and blurring frame borders is necessary. Thanks to smart software and lots of fuel one can take pictures of the whole city.
Search engines are an ideal place to make such a product useful. The main use is the ability to see places before going there in person. For example you might want to check if there are parking spots in front of a given shop. Or you can visually remember the store's front so that you won't go round in circles after arrival (useful for those of us with visual memory). What's interesting is that the new product can also be useful even if you don't intend to physically visit the place. For instance, when shopping online in less known shops you can't be sure that they are trustworthy and if their business is fully legal. Having an address of such a company you can check if they indeed are located under the given address and how their HQ looks like. Maybe it's not much, but still better than nothing.
In June 2005, after A9 published their version of street views, Google became interested in helping the Stanford students' project; remember that both Google founders studied right there. At that time I worked for Google and had an opportunity to learn more details about the professional version of CityBlock. Most important, the system had to be developed so that it could be used on large scale, instead of a limited scale student project. Obviously they have used new, better cameras, added GPS and lots of other hardware to gather data. One of the side effects of electronics was overloading the alternator, which was not designed to power so many devices. One should also remember about practical aspects – it's impossible for the authors to personally drive through all the cities. The system had to be stable and easy to service so that one can just hire a driver, give him a city map with the driving plan and pick up the data afterwards. A popular problem of hobbyist systems is often lack of reliability. The project maybe was not developed in a particularily quick fashion, but the final result shown today seems to be worth two years waiting.
An interesting fact is the reference to “CityBlock” name, i.e. the original student project at Stanford. If you look into the URLs called by Street View, you can easily spot the address cbk0.google.com. “cbk” is an abbreviation of “CityBlock”, of course.
It was a pleasure to visit the places in San Francisco, which I had a chance to see in person two years ago, e.g. the characteristic “wiggly” Lombard Street (the sharp curves are necessary in this very steep part of SF). Here's the link to Google Street View version, and below is my picture taken in at same spot:
A couple of words about Street View problems:
- So far only several US cities are available, we're waiting for more!
- Such a precise photo may cause unusual lawsuits. Say, a wife could find her husband with a lover – and there we have a lawsuit based on Google's maps. Though theoretically when walking in public we are sharing our image by default, in some specific cases many people will have serious complaints to Google about violating privacy.
- The problem I mentioned already – lack of Flash plugin for some platforms. This problem is difficult to avoid though.
Want to try out Street View? You have to add the
parametr to the existing Google Maps URL. Here's the direct link. I also recommend
having a look at the official
help page. Below there is a video showing some examples of Street View
Update: Philipp Lenssen published a nice Street View Gallery.