Google Street View

July 2007

Mary Kalin-Casey enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame in late May. Or to be more correct, it was her cat Monty — even making the New York Times.

What was so special about Monty? Nothing, other than the fact that when Google Maps launched its new Street View feature, Monty could be seen on his perch in the window of Mary’s apartment.

Mary was shocked — shocked! — when she saw Monty’s face in Google’s Street View, concerned that the 360-degree images of major cities that Google is creating may be, ah, an invasion of privacy.

Not long after Street View launched, it became a bit of a sport to cruise the streets, looking for images of, ah, interest. And people found plenty. There was the guy scaling a security gate, a man walking into an adult book store (face not visible), a couple dogs fighting in a park, a policeman pulling over a car. And very soon there was a new web site, streetviewr.com, that featured these images.

Okay, so maybe Street View is a bit of an invasion of privacy, but it’s still pretty cool. This new feature of Google Maps lets you, as you may have surmised, zoom in on a particular area of a city and see a panoramic view from street level. You can take virtual walks through the city, panning, rotating, and zooming.

So far Google is making Street View available for five cities: San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Miami, and Denver. To visit one of these cities, you simply click on the Street View button at the top of the map area of Google Maps, and then select one of the cities marked with an icon of a camera. Once you’ve focused in on a particular area, you click on the white arrow to cruise down the street or use the navigation aid at top left to rotate and zoom. There’s a great demo that helps you get started.

So how does Google do it? They’re working with companies such as Immersive Media, which has an eleven-lens camera capable of taking full, high-res video while driving along city streets. And should you be cruising Street View and happen, ah, to see your face in an unflattering image, you can ask Google to remove it. And maybe your cat’s face, too.

Google Street View is just one instance among many recent developments in the marriage of imagery and geography, and I think we’re only going to see this trend accelerate. Another instance is the My Maps feature of Google Maps (see the My Maps tab at the top of the left column). This allows you to combine your photos with a Google map. Let’s say you visited some exotic place and took a lot of photos. You can use My Maps to construct a virtual tour of an area, embedding photos and videos at specific locations on your map.

You can then share your map with others. Also, you can choose to make your map public, such that anyone can see it when they do a location search in Google Maps or via the Google Earth application. Get the picture? Google is building a huge repository of location-based images contributed by users. Other web sites are doing similar things, including Panoramio, which was recently purchased by Google.

Microsoft, of course, is not to be outdone. They’re also hustling to bring you a panoramic view of major cities. But their attitude is that photos that include a guy standing on the street corner are, ah, an invasion of privacy — and also a distraction. Their approach is to create photo-realistic, virtual, 3D cities. Just about the time that Google launched Street View, Microsoft released a virtual 3D view of New York City, with plans to map other cities as well. It’s an almost complete rendering of the city. You can access it via Microsoft’s Live Search Maps site. And you’ll need to download a plugin for Internet Explorer or Firefox in order to access it.

Google also plans to compete in this arena. It already has some rudimentary 3D cities in Google Earth, but plans to create much more sophisticated renderings of cities around the world. And both Microsoft and Google continue to add aerial imagery, with Microsoft recently adding images to Live Maps that give much more detail than Google’s.

So, as you can see, there are lots of developments in this arena. Still, for the fun factor, it’s hard to beat Monty’s face in the window.

© 2007 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen