Boston’s Faneuil Hall Is a Finalist for Google Street View Visit—Vote Now, Then Meet Trike Builder Dan Ratner

Being journalists, we here at Xconomy try to refrain from bald political statements or endorsements. We’d never ask you to “vote early and often” for any candidate for office. But this week we can cheerfully recommend that you subvert the democratic process by going to www.google.com/trike and voting as many times as you can for Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace as the next U.S. pedestrian mall to be photographed by Google’s tricycle-borne Street View crew.

Street View, as most Google users know, is the Google Maps feature that gives you a panoramic visual preview of places you may plan to visit in person. Using a fleet of camera-equipped cars, Google has collected 360-degree, street-level views for hundreds of cities in all 50 U.S. states and quite a few countries around the world. But until recently, those views haven’t extended into pedestrian malls, parks, hiking trails, and other areas where cars are off limits.

That’s changing thanks to the Street View Trike, a contraption dreamed up a couple of years ago by Google senior mechanical engineer Dan Ratner. The trikes are essentially pedicabs that Google has converted to carry the standard Street View camera and computer equipment. Ratner and his crew have already used the trikes to create Street View images of places like California’s Legoland (just north of San Diego), and in an October post on the official Google blog, Ratner invited users to say where they’d like to see the trikes go next.

Faneuil Hall, BostonThe company got 25,000 nominations, and on Monday it announced that it had picked 24 finalists in five categories. Faneuil Hall is a finalist in the pedestrian malls category. It’s pitted against Chicago’s Navy Pier and San Francisco’s Pier 39.

Now, without insulting our friends in the Windy City and the Golden Gate, I think it’s fair to say that Faneuil Hall is the only historically significant place on that list. Pier 39 is a mall-on-stilts built in the 1970s that owes most of its fame to the sea lions who have adopted it as their home, and Navy Pier was basically an abandoned eyesore until its redevelopment in the 1990s. So Boston’s historic “cradle of liberty”—the site of fiery oratory by the fathers of the revolution—should clearly be the first of these locations to get the Google Trike treatment.

Google users get to vote for the winners in each category. According to the company, you can vote as many times as you like—but you’ve only got until midnight on Monday, November 30. So stop reading this now and go vote!

To get the whole scoop on the Google Trike and how it’s changing the face of Google Street View, I talked with Dan Ratner himself on Tuesday.

Xconomy:
Do you think the Google Trike helps to put a human face on Street View, which has sometimes run into public skepticism and misunderstandings?

Dan Ratner: Let me put it this way. Every time I’ve been out there on the bike—which is quite a number of times now—there’s been a lot of excitement. People are like, “Wow, this is Google Street View? I’ve seen that, but I didn’t know how you get the data!” Seeing a bicycle does seem to put a human face on it, literally, because I’m there and people can come up to me and talk to me. Everybody knows about Google Earth and Google Maps, and most people already seem to know about Street View, but they’re not familiar with the different platforms we use. Sometimes they see me and assume that the trikes do all of Street View. My reply to that is, “We have some amazing riders, but wow, that would take a lot of them!”

X: Stepping back, how would you describe the value that Street View adds to Google Maps?

DR: If you want me to get a little bit philosophical, I think that humans have really evolved to be visual animals. There’s just something in our brain—an image lights up a lot more hotspots in your cortex than simple text or a map view would. In terms of cold, hard utility, I can tell you how I myself used Street View the first time it launched: I play music in a band and we were getting ready for a show, and we had to hire a different drummer. The new drummer lived about an hour away from my friend’s house, and I was trying to describe how to get there, and I just showed him Street View and sent him a link. That was the first time a musician ever showed up at a rehearsal without having to call. I think that’s exactly what a lot of people are doing—saying “Here’s where we’re meeting” and sending the link in an e-mail.

X: Okay, and how does having the trike improve Street View?

DR: Many people view Street View as a tool for navigating from a car, but that’s because that’s pretty much the imagery we serve. But if you look at Europe, for example, there are many important places that you just can’t get to in a car. Whether you are on a bike or walking or if you just live in the area, you can now check it out. We’re now sending the trike into those places that are off the beaten path, that cars can’t get to. I’ll give you another example: I went to a close friend’s wedding in Central Park in New York last May. That’s a humungous place, and we had to figure out which part of this huge park we were going to. She ended up having to hire people to do nothing but usher people 10 minutes into the park to this specific site. Having something like Street View for Central Park could help you get out of your car and walk or bike there.

X: How many trikes are there so far compared to the number of cars that are equipped with Street View cameras? And if Google is serious about photographing all of the important off-road places around the world, wouldn’t it need thousands of trikes?

DR: Right now we have about 10 to 15 of them. They’re being deployed here in the U.S., in Asia, and in Europe. This is a fairly new aspect of Street View—going off roads—and nobody that I can think of all of a sudden jumps to deploying things by the thousands. That’s not how Street View began either. We started with a small group of cars and scaled up. How big could this get? I guess we’ll see. The suggestion campaign has had a huge number of participants.

X: How does the equipment on the trikes differ from Google’s standard car-mounted Street View camera system?

DR: When the idea arose, one of the things that was important to us was to maintain the quality of the imagery in terms of what we deliver already from the car platform. We didn’t want to change what the users sees when they are looking at the car trails versus the trike trails. So what we have now on the trike is literally identical to what’s on the cars. Now, how do you get that on the trike, given that you have things like bumpy roads? That is where all the engineering comes in.

You’ve probably seen videos of me on the trike. It’s nimble compared to a car, but it’s also quite a beefy rig. We start with pedi-cab chassis from Main Street Pedicabs. They are able to carry three adults plus the rider, so we are well under the weight they can handle. We modified the frames to suit what we needed in terms of mounting the camera, and we engineered other stuff to get the camera up high. It’s basically just like a mountain bike, where you have this really low first gear. I was able to ride it up a mountain bike trail.

X: Do you have to adjust the camera to take pictures less often, given that a bike goes a lot slower than a car?

DR: The camera always has to know where it is in order for us to put the data back onto a map, so it takes a picture at certain increments of spacing. That’s gauged by how frequently we want to serve up the panos [the panoramic Street View images]. Right now we’re treating the trike like a pedal-powered car; what you see on the trike trails is the same as what yould see on a normal road. The spacing [between panos] is the same.

X: Do you still get out on the trike?

DR: Not really. During the development of it, I was out there riding all the time, just to try to break things. And I was involved in the data collection with some of our first partners—the full soup-to-nuts experience. But at this point we are far enough along in the program that we have full-time riders that we’ve hired and that is their daily job. The majority of what I do as a mechanical engineer is work on hardware related to the Street View team. It’s more idea generation and new product development.

X: Do you have any personal favorites among the locations on the trike finalists lists?

DR: Being a mountain biker, I have a penchant for some of the outdoor stuff. [The finalists in the parks and trails category included places like Boulder Creek Bike Path in Colorado, the Stevens Creek Trail in Californian, and the Schuylkill River Trail in Pennsylvania.] I’m more inclined that way. But I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say I have a favorite. Who knows, I might wind up really loving the Bronx Zoo.

Below: A Google YouTube video showing Ratner on the trike.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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