Since 2007, Google Street View has morphed from a fun extra Maps feature to a comprehensive digital index of the world’s surroundings, capturing everything from city streets to wild animals.
That’s thanks, in part, to the 40-pound, 15-lens, wearable Google Street View Trekker.
When visiting Google’s Palo Alto offices on a sunny day earlier this summer, I tried on the massive 360-degree camera in a backpack known as the Trekker.
The Trekker takes the equipment found on top of a Street View van and shrinks it down so that it can be worn. This enables Google to take photos not just of cities, but of any terrain that can only be travelled by foot — provided the person doing the travelling is able to withstand the backpack’s 40-pound weight.
“It’s not just about pretty pictures and giving people a sense of what things are like,” Deanna Yick, Google Maps’ Street View Program Manager, told me before I strapped into the backpack. “We’re using this imagery for conservation, historical purposes, learning, and education.”
The Trekker is waterproof, Yick told me, and has 15 cameras arranged in a sphere on top of the apparatus. There’s a drying tube that makes sure there’s not too much moisture on the lenses due to condensation.
It comes with space for extra batteries and water so that operators can go out for six to eight hours at a time with a Trekker. It also has a walkie-talkie because there’s not always reliable cell service.
As an operator walks along, the Trekker automatically snaps photos from each of its 15 lenses every 2.5 seconds. The equipment is also GPS-enabled. This means that Trekkers have inadvertently caught evidence of tectonic shifts when operators have re-shot certain locations — the photos are that comprehensive.
And it’s really heavy. Forty pounds hadn’t sounded like that big a deal when they were telling me about it. But after Yick and Cadrecha put the Trekker on my back, I almost fell backwards under its weight.
Standing in the Trekker, I couldn’t believe that people wear them for up to eight hours at a time — often while walking on rough terrain, no less.
Google not only sends its own “operators” out to shoot photos with the Trekker, but also loans Trekkers to outside volunteers who are passionate about conservation, Yick said. They have secured shots of Hawaii and the UK’s rivers and canals through this program.
“Our goal is to provide the most comprehensive and accurate and useful map possible,” she said, “so that Google Maps is a mirror of the real world. We want it to be seamless.”
Yick has always been fascinated with maps, she said. She not only finds Street View useful for planning purposes, but also loves the hit of nostalgia it can provide. She’s been known to get lost exploring Venice via Street View, hoping it will take her back to her own past trip to Italy.
“It a powerful tool to make the world smaller,” she said. “The fact that I can use Google Maps and hop into the Pyramids of Egypt, without a plane ticket or learning a new language, but still get a sense of it — it’s really exciting.”
Yick’s mother has particularly enjoyed using Street View to keep up with her daughter’s travels. After Yick went to the Galápagos Islands for a work trip, her mother was able to follow along on Street View and see all of the areas that had been snapped by Trekkers.
“She was like, ‘I’d love to go [to the Galápagos] but there’s no way I could walk those rocky trails with my health and at my age,'” Yick recalled. “It’s an avenue for people to explore from the comfort of their own homes.”
Those comprehensive photos of the Pyramids and Venice wouldn’t be possible without the Trekker, though. The terrain in these locales is too unpredictable, even for Google’s fleet of trolleys, boats, and even pedicabs. Here’s an operator capturing the best views of Venice by gondola:
The Trekker’s main benefit hasn’t been illustrating maps, but instead, allowing people to see what goes on in less charted areas that aren’t mapped out with roads.
“What we’ve found is just because the road ends doesn’t mean there’s not more interesting stuff to see,” Yick said. “That’s where the good stuff is — off the beaten path.”