You're planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games next February, so in anticipation you hop online to check out the venues, hotel and other Vancouver tourist attractions including Stanley Park and the Capilano Suspension Bridge.
If you did this just a month ago, however, you might find some overhead satellite imagery or a few random pictures of the Olympic facilities, but now it's a brand new experience thanks to street-level imagery at your fingertips, to better give you a sense of what it's like standing in front of B.C. Place Stadium, Whistler Village or the historic Granville Island.
Just in time for the Winter Olympic Games, Google has expanded its popular Street View feature on Google Maps -- which debuted in May 2007 for the U.S. but has since expanded to 13 countries -- so that computer or smartphone users can virtually explore and navigate through neighbourhoods via panoramic street-level images.
You might, for example, use the bilingual Street View to see what's in walking distance from your hotel (and if the seafood restaurant you're booking reservations for has an outdoor patio or not). Or perhaps you want to click through an Olympic venue by looking around in 360 degrees, as well as up and down, and zooming in and out on structures. Or maybe you're in need of directions and want to use Street View to better visualize where to get somewhere -- and look for a landmark as an additional cue not found on your GPS navigation unit, like a giant willow tree or memorable store sign. You get the idea.
At launch, this free tool is available in eleven cities across Canada -- Vancouver, Whistler, Squamish, Banff, Calgary, Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax -- with many more planned in the coming months and years, says Google. More than 49,400 kilometres of road were covered for the Street View launch in Canada, all taken by Google's flashy Street View vehicles for nearly two years.
How to get going
To view the Street View imagery from this first-person perspective, simply launch the free Google Maps software and zoom to the lowest level on the street. Alternatively, you can drag the orange "Pegman" icon on the left-hand side of the map onto a blue-lined street to launch Street View.
Google says this service was already popular among online Canucks who wanted to check out street-level imagery for other countries, as more than 150 million Street View images were viewed by Canadians in 2009 alone. Aside from the U.S. and Canada, other countries with Street View now include the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Japan, Taiwan and Australia.
Many Canadians also enjoy clicking through humorous, candid photos caught by Google's Street View, be it public urination, cars on fire, funny business signs or people posing for the cameras (even reenactments of medieval battles by "soldiers" in full costume).
Privacy, accuracy concerns
Google is well aware people have "Big Brother" concerns over technology that captures people and places and broadcasts it for the world to see. But the Mountain View, Calif.-based search giants maintain they've work with both federal and provincial privacy commissioners to protect Canadians' privacy in a number of ways.
For one, all photos taken are on public roads -- things you'd see being on these highly-trafficked areas if you were there in person -- and not in private areas or peering in windows. Secondly, all identifiable faces and license plates are blurred by software before its published online. Third, if anyone has a privacy issue with something they saw on Street View, they can flag it for removal by clicking on the "Report a problem" link at the bottom of any image; Google says roughly 10,000 corrections or additions are made by users each hour.
On a related note, an example of a photo glitch showed twin CN Towers in Toronto instead of one, but the mistake, caused by two photos stitched together, was quickly fixed.