Google Street View: The Internet giant comes to you

Google is coming for you. In fact, Google's minions are driving Chevy Cobalts with roof-mounted 360-degree digital cameras, and they want to take your picture. Smile! You're on Googlecam.

In an unprecedented campaign, Google Inc. is enhancing its Google Maps service with a new Street View feature that allows you to view crisp, navigable photos of roads in nine major cities across the U.S., including San Francisco, New York, San Diego and Denver. (To see the full list, go to maps.google.com and click the Street View link on the upper-right corner.)

Once you zoom in close enough, you can click the Street View link and look around the location, or click an arrow to see the next Street View photo.

To snap the pictures, Google mounted digital cameras on the roof of passenger cars -- reportedly Chevy Cobalts, according to the tech blog Gizmodo -- and drove around San Francisco and San Diego.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company partnered with Immersive Media Co. for the underlying photo technology and has worked with third-party firms for street-level photography for the additional cities outside of California. Only San Francisco and San Diego use high-resolution street-level images, however. Other cities use lower-res captures.

Street View could be a boon for "landmark drivers" who prefer driving instructions such as "Turn left at the large brick church, and drive until you get to the pizza place on the corner" as opposed to "Meet me at Second Street and Fourth Avenue." It certainly reveals how far Google will go to prove its mapping prowess -- and, incidentally, attract users to more localized advertising.

According to Greg Sterling at Sterling Market Intelligence in Oakland, Calif., Google has a Business Referral Representative program that sets a precedent for localized involvement. That program involves Google representatives providing local business information and photos to Google for a fee. Sterling said that precedent for collecting local information and photos is being continued with the Street View program. Street View is "about creating more utility for consumers, which in turn will lead indirectly to ad revenue over the longer term. Google has long focused on small businesses and local users, so this is just trying to take those efforts to the next level," Sterling said.

Still, regardless of whether Street View is purely a mapping enhancement or a new play for ad revenue, there is tough competition from Microsoft Corp. and others. There are also some nagging privacy issues to deal with, plus the sheer magnitude of the project.

The story so far ...

Of course, Street View is not a new idea. Amazon.com Inc. tried a 360-degree street-view mapping feature in its A9 service that it subsequently abandoned. Microsoft has provided a Bird's Eye View feature in Live Virtual Earth that allows you to zoom in on a location, albeit not quite to the street level. (There is a preview of Microsoft's "street side" technology that does allow you to see street-level views, but only for portions of Seattle and through a rather clunky interface.)

Another competitor, EveryScape.com in Waltham, Mass., has mapped out the Union Square section of San Francisco with 360-degree street-level views and plans to "virtualize" four more cities this year. Users can sign up to become "scape" artists who drive city streets with roof-mounted cameras. There's a strong user-participation angle, but EveryScape doesn't have Google's funding or advertising incentive.

Street View is an audacious project that, according Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at JupiterResearch in Darien, Conn., will likely expand to every major American city and even to higher-population rural areas. "Google is adding cool and interesting features to their mapping service as a way to enhance their core services and generate new revenue," he said.

While Google has no set plans to update street-level photos on a regular basis, according to Google Maps product manager Stephen Chau, it does have policies for updating aerial shots on a regular basis that could set a precedent for Street View updates.

Google fandom reaches new heights

Google is immensely popular, of course, but Street View seems to have attracted an unprecedented level of interest, some of it perhaps even slightly obsessive.

One Wired blog allowed users to submit odd Street View sightings, including a man being arrested and another urinating at a roadside. Other sites, such as Street View Gallery and Street View Spy, also allow users to post strange Street View sightings. There's even a Cafe Press T-shirt for those who don't want to be photographed.

Google's Chau said the company encourages user participation, but only through the My Maps feature. "We get offers from people to drive the [camera] cars almost every day," he said. For users who want to participate through the My Maps feature, they can geo-tag their photos (adding location data) and post them in public forums. For example, after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, users posted photos of the fallen bridge and aftermath.

Why the fandom? For photographer Charles Bandes in Boston, it's the community aspect -- the fact that a large company might be visiting. "I am fascinated by the idea that Google is taking snapshots of my community, and the idea that they might actually take a photo of me if they make a map of my neighborhood is even better."

For Bandes and others, it's an opportunity to meet Google face-to-face. Meanwhile, from Google's standpoint, camaraderie with users could help them capture out-of-the-way locations.

"I think user participation would be a great idea as Google simply can't do the level of coverage required alone," adds Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose.

Right-to-privacy controversy

Yet, the idea of photographing the entire U.S. one street at a time is a monumental undertaking, even for Google. It's also controversial, especially for privacy-rights advocates.

For example, BoingBoing users argue that it's wrong to take photos in public places and use them for commercial gain, that it's "creepy" for cars to be prowling city streets, and that -- if the government were monitoring the public with photographs on public streets, there would be more of an outcry.

Tom Austin, a Gartner Inc. analyst covering Google, said that anyone can take photos in public places, but the privacy issue could become a problem when Google expands to foreign countries where photographing people on public streets requires a signed waiver.

Google's Chau did say that the company filters out some photographs that might be perceived as inappropriate and that individuals can request that the company remove specific photographs.

That kind of user-specific filtering could be a death blow to Street View, however, once it expands to hundreds of U.S. cities, because monitoring such a vast library would be nearly impossible.

Whether the local advertising monetization works or the privacy issues persist, or whether many more metropolitan areas become "Google-ized" this year are all interesting questions waiting to be answered.

John Brandon is a freelance writer and book author who worked as an IT manager for 10 years.

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