Since that day in 1993 when the University of Windsor gave me my first internet account (that required a bureaucratic sign-up process and a two-week wait for the precious UNIX password) the internet has had moments of futuristic change so deeply immersive one might forget to eat, just like how Walter Benjamin described the intoxicating allure of wandering the city streets as a flà¢neur. Discovering Google Street View was another of those moments.
Launched earlier this year, Google has an armada of cars outfitted with special 360° cameras driving around snapping photos every few meters which are then geographically tagged and loaded into Google Maps. If you click on “Street View” on a standard Google Map you will see some American cities have a camera icon on them — zoom in to find the “blue” streets that you can again click on and bring up a photo of that location. The photo is fairly high resolution and can be zoomed and sort of “grabbed” with your mouse to swivel the view and look around, just as you would with your neck. This strange Bay Area tech-hippy gives a good overview of how it works.
In a few places you can see a car or person and follow them a few shots before they drift off. This has caused some controversy, as Google’s camera has caught some odd sights like men heading into adult book stores and women sunbathing. The Wikipedia entry explains that when Canadian cities are added, faces and license plates will be blocked out as it violates our privacy laws.
Recently Google added new cities, like Detroit. You can take a tour of its empty, near-rural neighbourhoods and once-magnificent downtown. One place that caught my eye was the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor. It appears the Google-folk went over to Canada and turned the camera on when approaching U.S. customs on their return, even snapping a picture at the most stressful point for any visitor to that country: the customs booth (I cannot imagine a quicker route to a full cavity search than snapping a photo of an agent at that moment — the things Google and their billions can get away with). I also checked out various places I’ve been to see if they’re still there or if they’ve changed, including the [murmur] signs we put up in San Jose, California, last year.
The most amazing advancement of Street View would be a pairing of Google Earth with Photosynth software that scrapes tagged images from Flickr to construct a model of a location or building (check out this amazing TED talk demonstrating Photosynth, especially the “reconstruction” of Notre Dame cathedral beginning at about 2:40 into the video). Unfortunately Microsoft bought Photosynth so it’s unlikely they’ll want to play and share with Google, the monster corporation that does so many things right I tend to forget why we should be wary of them.
Your computer will need a fairly recent version of Flash installed, but otherwise be prepared to spend hours sitting at your computer while wandering far and wide. There are limitations — a real-life flà¢neur would not be limited to just the main streets that Google photographed, but it’s likely only a matter of time before Street View includes Alley View, Back Garden View or perhaps Kitchen View — all things that might have made Aldous Huxley nervous.
Photo by Josh Bancroft