When Google first introduced Streetview (mid 2007), a photographic documenting of nearly every street in every major city across the US, its quality was not great. Pictures were grainy, lighting wasn’t always optimal, and in some cases, Google’s Priuses were documenting streets at night, resulting in a nearly worthless representation of the actual streetscape.
But, the concept was awesome. Imagine being able to look up any address and get an idea of its surroundings, neighbors, urban amenities, and general condition. This undertaking had major implications for real estate investors, police reconnaissance, and all map geeks and urbanophiles. With an address, satellite aerial image, and real imagery from the curb, any aspect of the built environment along a public street could be verified: building or lot size…overhead utilities…or the presence of nice trees and absence of drug dealers on a particular corner.
Once high-definition cameras went more mainstream, Google’s imagery improved, and many roads and streets were represented more vividly and with superior detail. Still, one of Google’s main challenges is to maintain current and accurate imagery, which can only be updated as quickly as its fleet of camera-cars can circulate. In addition to covering the US, Google has expanded to nearly every country in the world, with gaps in unsafe or undrivable places.
As a map/city/space lover, I find Streetview’s content useful both for research and leisure. Now that almost every urban place on earth has been documented, it’s hard not to get lost in the accessible exoticism. Santiago, Chile is a place I’d like to go. Full of business and intellectuals, and known for its wine.
Across South America, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janiero are captured in unvarnished, candid detail that you just can’t get in someone’s photos.
To create my many custom Google Maps, I use Streetview to verify locations, and along the way, usually find cool storefronts, or houses I like, or curious scenes. I can pull up where I stayed in London…the cool Prada store in Tokyo…
Closer to home, the house I grew up in is looking wonderful.
And I’ve already chosen where I’d live in Austin…
And some of my favorite Chicago residences…
Though nothing beats the real thing, Streetview is a useful aid in becoming familiar with the sights and scenes around the globe. It confirms a level of global homogeneity, at least from a vehicle’s perspective. Cities are punctuated by cars and roads, and the scenes never look very different. It indirectly underlines the true value of travel: the sensory differences that cannot be photographed, like people, weather, food, activity, and entertainment…and Mother Nature’s scenes that are not reachable by vehicle (i.e. Patagonia, the Grand Canyon, the middle of the Atlantic).
Travel is not as regular as I’d like at this stage in my life, though I manage to learn and absorb a lot through making maps and learning new urban layouts. For the pauper-daydreamer, Google Streetview presents a temporary escape from the familiar and predictable to show you what all exists in the world, to a limit. For planning future travel, it can strip away the initial mystery and even screen out places that don’t look so great.
For free, unlimited access and regularly refreshed content, I’ll gladly take advantage of the hard work Google has put in to image the world’s roads.