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VOL. 130 | NO. 4 | Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Trekking In

Google extends Street View technology in Memphis

By Andy Meek

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Google already has mapped cities like Memphis extensively via the company’s now familiar, camera-equipped Street View cars, which produce interactive images that can be explored by a curious user. The search company, though, has also taken that technology a step farther, with the result available in Memphis starting today.

Because cars are limited in where they can venture in a city, Google a few years ago started what it calls its Street View Trekker Loan Program. It involves loaning to organizations around the country a camera worn via backpack, and the wearer walks – as opposed to driving – while images are captured and fed into Google’s existing Maps offering.

The result takes users situated in front of a computer or mobile screen deeper than they might be able to go via the car-produced images. When Google announced that third parties like tourism organizations could apply to participate, the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau stepped up.

After applying last year and going through training from Google in Memphis, the backpack was left with the CVB. Between August and September, CVB director of online marketing Bob Hazlett as well as Stephen Ferguson, a doctoral student intern from the University of Memphis, alternated wearing the backpack and trekking around a variety of Memphis locales like Graceland, the Memphis Zoo, Shelby Farms Park, Overton Park, Rhodes College and the riverfront.

“There are 15 lenses on the camera that capture images every one to two seconds,” said Hazlett about the roughly 40-pound backpack. “We sent that to Google and they stitched the imagery together, blurring out things like a person’s face or a license plate. One of their caveats was you do this between 9 and 3 every day to get the best images when the sun is highest. The exposure is something we’re really excited about, because we have the potential to reach millions of people.”

To see the image results, if someone Googles a location like the Memphis Zoo then looks at the Street View results, they’ll now be able to digitally “walk” through the Zoo as if they were there, in person.

An Android phone is used to operate the camera, with options that allow operators  to pause the image-capture or stop it completely. The lenses at the top of the camera mast point in different directions, allowing Google to create 360-degree panoramic views, and the camera system extends about two feet above the operator’s shoulders when worn.

Already, the Trekker program has captured imagery that lets users virtually visit locations around the world like the ancient Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower.

Google spokesman Susan Cadrecha said the Trekker program is open to entities like tourism boards and nonprofits but that the company is not working with commercial organizations at this point for it.

“Anyone who’s on Google Maps – this (imagery) will also be surfaced in Search as well – but anyone looking for, say, Graceland, they’ll actually be able to go right into Google Maps and explore this imagery,” Cadrecha said. “Once live, it will be available to people all over the world. We know Street View never replaces the real thing, but we hope this encourages people to come see these places in real life.”

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