Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Armchair walkabout - Google Street View

It's only recently, since I bought my Sony tablet really, that I've looked into the possibilities offered by Google Street View.

In case you didn't know, if you have a PC or a laptop, or a mobile phone or a tablet, you can access Google Maps, which is an onscreen street map covering the entire world so far as I can see. Street View is part of that. You select a point on the map, then click on (or if using a touchscreen, put a finger on) whatever you have selected, and some localised details pop up for that particular spot. In populated areas, more often than not nowadays, Street View will be offered. This gives you a street-level visual experience, derived from photos taken by Google with a vehicle-mounted camera that has toured every main road and sidestreet that the vehicle could reach. I think the main effort was in 2009, but of course Google must be updating these shots for major towns and cities all the time. The photos taken have been cleverly stitched together to form an almost seamless, 360 degree view from your selected position. You can pan around as you please.

But that's not the really clever bit. Street View has Pegman, a small yellow figure whom you grab onto, and move within the scene to a fresh spot. And then the view will move with him. And you'll be able to see another 360 degree scene from that new point. In this way, by shifting Pegman again and again, you can 'walk' up a street, peer around corners, check out the approach to some place, what the parking is like, whether there's a cafe or a cashpoint nearby. It has obvious uses.

And not just to find your way on foot to a supermarket, or a hospital, or a leisure centre, and suss out what to expect on arrival. Street View can be a way of visiting places you have never been to, and might never get the chance to visit.

Google Earth is fine for a flying-saucer-type 'landing' at some distant spot on the Earth - Easter Island, Scott Base, Manaos in the Amazon, or whatever, but you don't get a walkabout experience from it. You most certainly can with Street View. What a boon this might be for the bedridden!

Street View doesn't reach everywhere, but you can get it at some surprising locations.

I've only tried it in the UK so far, but it let me view Land's End and John o'Groats, two places I've actually been to. Yup, Lands End (last seen in 2010) still looked tacky. But John o'Groats looked bizarre, the rundown hotel with turrets having been painted up since I went there in 2010 to resemble a funfair, with red vertical stripes. Ugh!

Elsewhere, in England, I could stroll about Holy Island in Northumberland (also visited in the flesh, in 2006) and Spurn Head on Humberside (only seen before on TV).

In Scotland, really putting it to the test now, I was able to tour Castlebay on the Outer Hebridean island of Barra, and (very surprisingly) Balfour on the Orkney island of Shapinsay. OK, Shapinsay is just a short ferry ride from Kirkwall, the main town in Orkney. Not a severe test at all. What about a couple of the more far-flung islands? But incredibly, Street View was able to show me Pierowall on the far north-west island of Westray, and Whitehall Village on the eastern island of Stronsay.

I looked at Whitehall Village again this morning. Something familiar about it. A definite feeling of deja-vu. Ah, yes. I'd been there before on Street View! When I came to it, I recognised the little white building on the very harbour shoreline that houses the local Royal Bank of Scotland branch. I moved Pegman up to the blue entrance door. Hmmm, it could do with a repaint. On a plaque to the left were these slogans: 'Welcome'; 'We're here to help'; and 'Here for you'. All rather ironic, considering the current computer glitch RBS and its subsidiaries are still battling with. I dare say even on Stronsay the pace of life is normal and modern, and you constantly need cash on demand.

But the Street View camera didn't seem to have got as far as St Kilda, forty miles off western Scotland (nor would I have expected it to), nor Lundy in the Bristol Channel, nor Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour (though I did expect views here, as these are popular tourist destinations), nor Hugh Town on St Mary's in the Scilly Isles (now that was surprising). Up in Scotland again, I'd hoped to drift serenely around Iona, that magical isle off the end of Mull, but no way. The camera took you only to the ferry at Fionnphort. Parked cars, a parked coach, a ferry office, and not a lot else to see, although you could get a glimpse of Iona offshore.

I do see a danger with indulging yourself too much with Street View. It shows up the ordinariness of places. Do I now want to go to Shapinsay, when I know what I will see? For decades Lerwick in Shetland had an exotic fascination. Now I've 'walked' around some of the town centre, and frankly it seems a lot less exotic than before.

On a tightish travel budget, do I want to spend cash on a 'real' visit to any of these places that I've examined on my tablet? You can see how Street View could easily be a spoiler, and a discouragement to getting out in to the world.

So I say: use it with care!

1 comment:

  1. Google maps are fascinating are they not? Whenever I get a job in an unfamiliar place I look it up on Google Maps street view. One of my main concerns is to be able to park next to the premises for obvious reasons. I don't fancy carting materials and tools too far and of course there is always the incidental visits to the van for that something extra. Once I have browsed the address I find myself meandering off to other places out of curiosity. I have the same inclination when I browse a dictionary and often find myself far away from my original search. It must be the same for you I would think Lucy, especially doing the browsing on holiday.

    Shirley Anne xxx

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