Google Street View: The world at our fingertips

On Friday, October 1, 2010, I read a news article that I found using Google’s news service which states that Google Street View has come to the Antarctica. This means that the service is now present on all seven continents and covers 25 countries this week launching Ireland and Brazil.

As you may know, I am a fan of Google. (see my blog Google – June 6, 2010) Yes, I know there are other services, other search engines like Bing and Yahoo but my real point in extolling Google is the idea of all this information on the Internet being harnessed so it’s available at my fingertips. I am certain that nobody under the age of 20 who has been born into this era could possibly imagine what the world was like pre-Internet. Hey, stone-age or what? 

Open a separate tab in your browser so you can jump back and forth between reading the following steps and doing them:

  1. Go to http://www.google.com
  2. Click on Maps
  3. On the left hand side, you’ll see a vertical slider. Click a couple of times on the negative sign to zoom out. We want to see the entire world so you may have to drag the map to center it.
  4. At the top of the slider, you will see the icon of a person. This is Google’s "pegman" that you use to "peg" where on the map you want an image to be displayed. Hold down your mouse button and drag the icon onto the map. Don’t let the button up!!!
  5. The map will fill with both highlighted areas and points. These represent where Street View is available in the world.
N.B. The blue dots represent user submitted images that have been incorporated into Street View. Remember that it is the Street View cameras which offer 360 degree panorama as opposed to user photos.

Wow. The States and the most populated areas of Canada, the western nations of Europe, Japan and great chunks of Australia, South Africa. Plus points and points all over the map including the far North and now the Antarctica. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed. This is an amazing amount of information to have readily available.

This is Google’s own default map of those areas covered by its Street View service: click here. Note that this map does not show the blue dots which are the additional user submissions.

What is Street View?
This is an addition to Google’s maps and Earth View which provide panoramic views of streets in various city centres in the world. Using car mounted cameras, Google visits an area criss-crossing the streets with the results of providing 360 degree photographs. Try the following:

  1. Go to http://www.google.com
  2. Type in "CN Tower" and hit Enter.
  3. You should now see a map of the centre of Toronto with a little pin symbol marked A.
  4. On the left hand slider, at the top, place your mouse over the icon of the person, "pegman", and drag the symbol onto the pin marked A.
  5. The map will then be replaced by a photograph, but not just any photograph. By holding your mouse over the photo and holding the mouse button down, you are able to "drag" the photo into a new angle. You can turn left or right, up or down and have pretty much a 360 degree view of the area.
You should end up with something like this: http://maps.google.ca/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=cn+tower&sll=49.891235,-97.15369&sspn=33.258073,107.138672&ie=UTF8&hq=CN+tower&hnear=CN+Tower,+Toronto,+Toronto+Division,+Ontario&ll=43.641293,-79.387078&spn=0.008758,0.026157&z=16&layer=c&cbll=43.641183,-79.387164&panoid=wkdzZwHI7D7c4NW6IFyuLQ&cbp=12,10.03,,0,-9.1

The feature of Street View which is certainly missing from regular photographs, is that you can "move" along the streets. Holding your mouse over the photo brings up options to click on which displace the camera so you can look at an area from various points of view. You can literally "drive around" and like anybody in a car, you can swing the camera angle around 360 degrees just as if you were sitting in your car turning you head around to get a better view: quite an impressive offering to the public. And don’t forget, this service is free!

Link
If you’ve never done this before, there is an absolutely fabulous feature of Google maps that extends to Street View. In the upper right of the map or Street View, you will see 3 buttons labelled Print, Send and Link. The Link option gives you a popup with the full URL of what it is you are currently looking at. By copying and pasting this URL, you can pass off to friends and loved ones exactly what you’ve found. I have found this to be a great way of sharing my trips, the things I’ve seen or even planning how to do the trip itself.

History
Google started this service in the U.S. in 2007 and the Wikipedia article contains some interesting details of the service and its history. I was amused about various people, groups and governments voicing concern over privacy issues. It was hilarious to discover amongst the first images taken according to an newspaper article dating from 2007, a man picking his nose on the street, protesters outside an abortion clinic and a man leaving a strip club. Google pointed out that they are merely taking pictures from a public area but has since introduced face blurring technology to its images to avoid any possible contentious issues about privacy. Of course, some governments in trying to protect their citizens from this so-called invasion of privacy, have either placed restrictions on Google’s picture taking or just banned Google altogether as has the Czech Republic. – Aside: The Czech government has banned Google but oddly enough has permitted another service to do exactly the same thing. Go figure.

Where’s my place?

Of course, I imagine everybody wants to see where they live; I certainly have checked out my current abode, the house where I grew up, etc. Since you don’t know when Google may have sent their cars around snapping pictures – usually within the past 3 or 4 years – you sometimes end up with some funny results. One guy I know showed me his home and there was his dog sitting out on the front lawn. Another saw his previous car parked in the driveway. I saw construction in my neighbourhood which now as of this writing is completed. In any case, it is always a interesting to bring up photos of things you are familiar with. It’s sort of like going back for a long awaited visit to a place you haven’t been to in a while.

Fortunate or unfortunate? The Google car only drives on the street. When you see some place familiar, there may be an urge to explore further but unfortunately, Google images don’t get off the beaten track to go behind buildings. When I visited my boyhood home, I would have loved to have gone into the backyard with which I am so familiar, but Google only took photographs from the street so I have to content myself with just looking at the front of the house. I suppose I could go back sometime but the new owners might phone the police on a 58 year old man wandering around their backyard!
Link to the above pic of the CN Tower

Street View: oddities
I have discovered a "plethora" – I just had to use that word. Ha! – devoted to the unusual in Street View. Many times when the Google Car passes by to snap some pics, it will inadvertently catch some bizarre things which make the reader wonder just what was going on.

I apologize for the following lengthy URLs but that is the nature of the beast when calling up Street View. Thank goodness Google offers that fabulous "link" option which gives you the URL of what Google maps, including Street View is currently showing you. Copy and paste into an email to pass along to friends and loved ones. Cool!

Pepsi truck turns into Coke truck: Montréal, Canada
You must move forward towards the Pepsi truck. Research has turned up that this phenomenon is merely caused by photos being taken at different times.

Car with duct tape as its rear window, Barrett, West Virginia

A nasty accident – West Palm Beach, Florida

The Google Camera Car stopped by the Ontario Provincial Police, Terrace Bay, Ontario

A couple of hams for the camera – Toronto
If you move down the street, these 2 kids stay just ahead of the Google camera car hamming it up for posterity.

A word of warning: These oddities and funny scenes do change. In researching this, I ran across pictures taken from Street View where people had "mooned" the Google camera car. However, when I double checked the link, Google had erased the offending… ah, posteriors. So, if you run across some "cheeky" little devil, make sure you check the original link to Street View. You may be disappointed to find that what was funny is no longer there.

Some additional thing to try
If you are unfamiliar with Google, its maps and other services, I would strongly advise you to take some time to explore what you literally have at your fingertips. Google offers a lot of services for free, working from a business model that uses advertising offered along with these free services. So far, the ads I find unobtrusive but considering what I’ve read about the size of the company, they certainly seem to know what they’re doing.

On a map, you have 3 options in the upper right: Map, Satellite and Earth. Map and satellite are obvious but the Earth option is very interesting. This provides a 3D rendering of the satellite images with the ability of changing the angle and moving around objects to a certain extent. While Google Earth is available as a free downloadable piece of software, Google has managed to incorporate a subset of the offering directly into their on-line map feature.

For those of you like me who like to explore or should I saw prepare for a trip by finding out things about the region I’m going to visit, there are options under "More" which allow you to turn on and off resources to information about various places. Google provides links to Wikipedia articles, photos and videos, even transit and webcams. Before even visiting a place, I have a wealth of material to consult so when I step off the plane, I know a thing or two about what to do. Don’t get me wrong, having a local guide is important. Our trip to Egypt (see my blog Egypt) was so much better using a local firm for local bookings and guides.

Final Word
I can’t get over what Google is offering for free. This is amazing. I repeat that yes, there are other companies vying for advertising dollars by offering similar services but at the moment, Google is way out in front. My browser’s home page being set up to the Google search screen is a testimony to my feeling familiar with their service and how my thirst for knowledge is easily quenched with a couple of keywords then a click on the button "Google Search". Having grown up in Canada during the 1950’s, I repeat how well I know a world which was very, very different from the plugged in, on-line, World Wide Net, Facebook, Tweeter, YouTube era into which kids are now being born. My goodness, if things have changed this much during my lifetime (so far!), I wonder what awaits us on the road up ahead? [I bow sweeping my arm ahead as a gesture meaning "after you"] Ah, let’s see what future holds for us all.  đź™‚

Click HERE to read more columns by William Belle

References

Wikipedia: Google Street View
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Street_View

my blog: Google
http://wqebelle.blogspot.com/2010/06/google.html

my blog: Egypt
http://wqebelle.blogspot.com/2010/06/egypt.html

2010-10-02

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