Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Google Streetview peddles around small streets

Julio Tang often gets mistaken for an ice cream vendor when he rides the Google Street View tricycle with its bulky white box on the back.

"That happens all the time," says Tang. "They think that you're an ice cream truck and then they get closer and realize it's a Google trike."

But there's no disappointment at the revelation, says Tang. Instead people "actually get more excited" and begin waving in hopes of being captured for posterity on the company's famous panoramic map views.

Off the beaten track

After photographing cities around the world with its fleet of camera-mounted cars, Google is now deploying the tricycles to tackle locations otherwise inaccessible.

"Basically this gets us off the roads and onto trails, university campuses, hopefully theme parks, places like that, that let people experience and really get inside those places on Google Maps," says Mike Pegg, a senior product marketing manager with Google.

"For people who are looking to plan a trip to Canada, tourists to Canada, people that live in a community, it gives people an opportunity to see what's in that place," adds Pegg.

Landmarks captured by Google's trikes around the world include Rome's Colosseum and England's Stonehenge.

Jon Bunning, who recently moved to Toronto from the U.K., came out to see the Google trike at Yonge-Dundas Square on Tuesday to check out its gadgetry, but also to find out where the vehicle will travel.

"I'd like to …show it to my friends, encourage them to come visit me," says Dunning. "These are the things that get people to spend the cash to come from England, to come pay me a visit."

Team effort

For the past two months, Toronto friends Tang, 24, and Jonathan Chang, 27 — the duo applied for the job as a team, as required — have been cycling locations off the beaten track across the Greater Toronto Area. Over the next couple months, their work will continue in the Toronto area. Separate crews will photograph Vancouver and potentially other cities as well.

Unlike the cars traversing publicly accessible streets, the harder-to-reach locations targeted by the trike are often located on private property and require special permission to photograph.

Google wouldn't reveal specific locations photographed by the camera-mounted trike in Canada, saying it was still awaiting permission to release details about the private locations.

Bunning hopes that the trike captures more than just landmarks, but also a bit of the heart of Toronto.

"I'd like to see an event covered … just to show how alive the city is in the summertime," says Bunning.

Uphill battles

Navigating off public roads with Google's 360-degree cameras not only comes with increased legal and privacy challenges for the company, but also physical obstacles for its riders.

Pushing the 180-kilogram trike and equipment uphill is the biggest one. But Tang and Chang quickly figured out a low-tech strategy, one that also ensures they don't end up in the shots and compromise Google's imagery.

When the duo approach an upcoming hill, one of them runs ahead, hides in a spot the Google cameras can't view, then dashes out to push the trike at the key moment when the rider hits the incline.

"I have to try to not to be in the shot," says Chang. "I have to duck down and then run and then just push it up, while ducking down just so the camera doesn't catch me."

Inevitably, though, the two end up in a smattering of Google shots — and in that regard, he can empathize with the passersby eager to jump into the Google camera's line of sight.

"It's pretty cool that you're on something that thousands of people are going to be looking at," he says.

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