Google’s work to accurately map the entire globe, complete with satellite imagery, is a staggering feat on its own. But since 2007, the team has been steadily building its documentation of the world in images, with panoramic, street-level photos of locations across all seven continents, and even underwater.
Google Street Maps is a novelty in some sense, an entertaining way to browse places you’ve always wanted to visit, or spy on bizarre scenarios and unsuspecting people captured by Google’s cameras. But it’s also a valuable function, allowing users to scope out storefronts, houses, neighborhoods and roads from the comfort of their homes.
To use Google Street Maps, either click to zoom in close on a Google Maps or Google Earth overhead image, or drag the little figure (pegman) from the zoom controls over to a point on the map. The resulting screen is a drag-able, 360-degree image surrounding that point on the map. You can even navigate the map, moving pegman down the street to new locations, if the data is available. One common, gratifying exercise is finding the street view of the house you grew up in. It drives home, quite literally, the project’s power to the point of eeriness.
How do Google Street Maps work?
To capture the Google Street View images, since 2007 Google engineers have sent fleets of camera-equipped cars all over the world. It’s as simple as that—cars with cameras drive around taking pictures. But the details are more impressive. For example, cars are outfitted with roof-mounted, elevated camera units with 15 lenses (up from the previous nine) that capture the array of images. The cars are also tricked out with onboard computers, GPS and lasers to accurately capture location information.
While the cars are the most common tools (one estimate suggests a fleet of 250, mostly Subarus), Google also has camera-equipped trikes, snowmobiles, and indoor pushcarts to capture images in a variety of settings.
Google then takes the thousands of images and “stitches” them together to create more or less seamless panoramas. Many images even have a 3-D option available by right clicking.
Google has been collecting such data since the project launched, and since then has amassed street views of extensive coverage areas in the North America and Europe, significant partial coverage in Australia and South America, and pieces of Africa and Asia. In 2012, Google unveiled panoramic Street Views in Antarctica and beneath the ocean, and recently posted views from the Amazon rainforests.
Concerns over privacy
Not surprisingly, not everyone is so keen on Google’s cars driving around and taking pictures of them. Google maintains that in the places it operates cars, it is perfectly legal and appropriate to take photos in public spaces. It also uses face-blurring software to hide identities in busy urban areas.
However, many privacy advocates have railed against the company for its blanket posting of imagery.
They cite domestic abuse shelters, adult establishments, abortion clinics and sunbathing locales as examples of places Google’s prying eyes might not be appropriate. In some areas of Europe with tighter privacy rules, governments have banned the Google cars entirely. And the company caught tremendous criticism when it was discovered that Google cars were also harvesting data on personal Internet activity picked up from Wi-Fi signals.
Oh, the Places Google’s Street Maps Have Been!
Despite the ongoing privacy issues, Google’s Street View project is continuing full steam ahead, and the images they’ve collected continue to be more and more impressive. For one, the quality of the images and the coverage area have improved tremendously since the project began. But the company has also created a gallery of some of the most astonishing places in the world. For example, the World Wonders Project displays high-quality, panoramic images of global landmarks both manmade and natural.
Notable subjects Google has documented include:
In 2012, Google posted a series of historic and natural panoramas from the icy continent surrounding the South Pole. Images include interior shots of historic huts of explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, as well as modern research labs, and casual shots of penguins milling about the ice.
Great Barrier Reef
There are now stunning Google Street Views where there are no streets, since the project launched underwater panoramas from the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Divers captured colorful underwater vistas of coral reefs, swimming sea turtles and massive manta rays.
The Many Oddities of the World
As you could imagine, cars with cameras driving around the world have captured some bizarre and shocking images of daily life. Some artists have taken to Google’s stockpile, mining them for the oddest and most amazing shots. The blog 9-eyes.com, for example, displays some of the strangest images from Street View, including cars engulfed in flames, mysteriously masked men, and jungle animals wandering urban settings.