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News - June 22, 2012

Mapping the world a frame at a time

Computer History Museum looks at past and future of Google's Street View

by Nick Veronin

It's the fifth anniversary of Google's Street View, a virtual reality map interface, and the Computer History is commemorating the Mountain View-based tech company's achievement with an exhibit. Opening this weekend, it chronicles the many innovations that led up to the introduction of the program, how the software works and where the technology is headed.

The 1,000-square-foot exhibit is opening for an exclusive viewing for Google employees on Friday, June 22, and will be open to everyone starting Saturday, June 23.

Street View, introduced to the public in 2007, allows users of Google's popular maps service to get a 360-degree view of many roads all around the world. Many living in Mountain View — and indeed, the world — have come to recognize Google's specialized cars, outfitted with a large multi-lens, multi-directional camera, which takes pictures "every five feet or so," according to Weber. After the photos are taken, they are stitched together by Google's computers to create a seamless, almost-spherical view of the world from the ground. Addresses, road signs, homes, offices and trees can be seen.

Iterations of Street View have existed for more than 100 years, according to Marc Weber, one of the museum's curators. He described a scene shot from the front of a cable car in San Francisco shortly before the 1906 earthquake. Though nowhere near as complex as Street View, the clip takes viewers down a stretch of street, just as Google's program can do.

"As long as there's been movie cameras, people have tried to do this kind of thing," he said. "It's the computer control that really made the modern version, and that started with Aspen."

Weber is talking about the Aspen Movie Map, a project he said was developed with the aim of allowing members of the military get the lay of the land before moving in to patrol or execute a mission. Starting in the mid-'70s, many of the streets of Aspen, Colo., were photographed in a similar fashion as the Google Street View cars take pictures. Those photos were stiched together and put into a computer that allowed users to virtually "drive" around Aspen.

However, watching videos of the Aspen Movie Map on YouTube, one can see how slow moving and primitive it is compared to the fluidity and 360-degree movement available in Street View.

In addition to providing historical precedents to Street View, the exhibit will also give museum visitors a chance to hop on a Google Street View car and a bicycle, which was once used to capture images of trails and places cars couldn't.

And, Weber said, the exhibit will also explore some of the innovative ways the Street View technology may be used in the future. Today, there are certain smart phone programs that allow users to learn about a given landmark simply by pointing their cell phone's camera at it. Weber said his impression is that Google hopes to map "pretty much anywhere a human can walk."

The Computer History Museum is located at 1401 N Shoreline Blvd. in Mountain View. More information is online at


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