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WEBWALK | from the New Zealand Herald

by Peter Griffin

Google’s new Street View service is pretty symbolic of where the web is going. First we had Google Maps which game geographical information, then Google Earth which added satellite maps to the mix. Then the maps were mashed-up to include everything from holiday photos to Wal-Mart outlets. Now Google takes us to street level and confronts us with the reality we’ve only seen before from a bird’s eye view.

It’s all about adding more detail, more clarity, going deeper into the data, re-using the same underlying technology to layer on yet more useful services. That’s the new internet for you.

But how much information is too much information? That’s the debate raging over Street View at the moment, touching on important issues such as privacy, copyright and human rights.

But first the technology – Street View is very impressive. It’s only available for a handful of US cities at the moment but the potential is obvious. It gives you the ability to stand at a busy intersection in New York and pan around 360 degrees to see the lie of the land in full colour.

It’s great to be able to get a street-level feel for a place rather than depending on blurry web cameras or the photo-shopped images the tourism industry wants you to see. Once the maps are fleshed out with more Street View locations from around the world, it will be really useful.

How is it put together? Google uses images from a company called Immersive Media which for the last couple of years has sent people driving around the US and Canada in grey Volkswagen Beetles with multi-lens cameras attached to them. The special cameras capture images as they go and those images are then plotted on streets on Google Maps, matched up using GPS co-ordinates. What is impressive is that you can get down to street level and then follow an arrow to travel along at street level.

Using Street View reminded me of the overlooked New Zealand service Roadworks Street Scroll (http://www.roadworks.co.nz) which features photographs of the main streets of Auckland from street level, giving you one big panorama of the likes of Queen Street, Ponsonby Road and the Viaduct Basin.

Street Scroll was ahead of its time when its creator Matthew Hart started putting it together back in 2000.

“It was a New Zealand first. Now we see everyone else trying to bite at our ankles,” says Hart, who was in the process of negotiating a deal
to license the street-scrolling technology to a US company when the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center occurred.

“We were going to get $25,000 per state,” says Hart. “We spent a year on the deal and it was almost ready to happen.” Post 9-11 jitters killed the deal, though Roadworks had started photography in the US – you can see both sides of the Las Vegas strip on its website.

Hart has a New Zealand patent for the street-scrolling imaging technology and is going through the patent application process in the US. He realises that even if he secured it, enforcing the patent would be difficult given the size of rivals like Google and Microsoft, which is developing its own service, Street-Side.

“I don’t know if I’d be in a position to fight them,” says Hart. “It costs a hell of a lot of money to do that.”

Roadworks has photographed a few overseas locations, notably, both sides of the Las Vegas strip and version three will include Flash video and the ability for shop keepers to dynamically update their shop fronts to keep things fresh. Hart also wants to photograph the entire New Zealand coast – one giant scroll around the Queen’s Chain. Good luck to him, it’s a fantastic idea.

As for the privacy concerns around Street View, I think they are being over-played. After all, a newspaper photographer can stand in the middle of a public place and take photos legally and have them published to be viewed by a massive audience. Why shouldn’t a company or a member of the public be allowed to?

I’m perfectly happy for someone to take a photo of the front of my house, as long as they do so from the road and stay off my property.

Obviously there has to be some policing. Street View needs to steer clear of all the things the mainstream media currently has to avoid – like nudity, violence, photos of school playgrounds, that sort of stuff. There also needs to be scope for take down requests so people who are offended at appearing in random shots can have them removed.

Still, Street View may run into trouble in places like the European Union, which has strong laws around publishing photos of people without their consent. It’s one thing to take a photo of someone in public, it’s another to publish that photo without their consent, especially if it could cause them distress. I’m sure the woman showing off her G-string to the world on Street View wasn’t too impressed about being snapped for the world to see. But where should the line be drawn?

I’m comfortable with Street View as it is. Anything I do in public I do assuming that everyone can see me anyway. I hope the service flourishes, but what’s the next step? Web cameras covering every street and constantly updating as feeds in Google Maps? High magnification zoom cameras that let people peek between your blinds?

That’s a little voyeuristic for me. Being photographed at a point in time at a reasonably low resolution is one thing, being digitally stalked via web camera, as happened to some unfortunate sunbathers at Mt Maunganui beach a couple of years ago, is another. There are already thousands of web cameras covering public places. But there needs to be provisions preventing someone on the other side of the world from watching me without my knowledge, when I’m in my home. I think they’d find the view of the street far more interesting anyway.

On the web:

http://maps.google.com/help/maps/streetview

http://preview.local.live.com/

www.roadworks.co.nz

www.immersivemedia.com