Google’s Street View “Trike” at Faneuil Hall Today: Q&A with Digital Imaging Mastermind Luc Vincent

If you’re in the Faneuil Hall area of Boston today, look out for the trike. That would be the Google Street View Trike, a pedicab-like contraption mounted with a camera and computer equipment. It’s meant to capture 360-degree, street-level images of places where Google’s fleet of Street View cars can’t go—pedestrian malls, university campuses, parks, hiking trails, and so forth.

As my colleague Wade reported last November, Faneuil Hall was a finalist for the trike treatment, competing against Chicago’s Navy Pier and San Francisco’s Pier 39 in the pedestrian mall category (via online voting). Well, the cradle of liberty won out, and today, Google is showing up to take the pictures. They should be viewable in Google Maps sometime in the coming months, the company says. (You can read more about the nuts and bolts of the trike project in Wade’s interview with senior mechanical engineer Dan Ratner.)

Of course, it’s all great marketing for Google. But it’s also a really interesting step in the evolution of digital imaging technology, and how consumers can experience the richer details of the real world while online. And it could eventually tie into Google’s local search business.

So I decided to do a deeper dive into Google Street View, which is an ongoing project in all 50 U.S. states and dozens of countries around the world. Yesterday I spoke with the mastermind of the Street View project, engineering director Luc Vincent, who’s based in Silicon Valley.

Vincent is a renowned expert in image processing and computer vision. A native of France, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Robotics Laboratory in the early 1990s before developing his career at Xerox Imaging Systems in Peabody, MA. From there, he moved out west and spent time at ScanSoft, Xerox PARC, and LizardTech, before joining Google in 2004, originally to work on Google book search.

We talked about the genesis and history of Google Street View, as well as the future of geo-search and imaging—its significance to the company, how far Google wants to go (hint: everywhere), and how it deals with privacy issues. Here are some edited highlights from our chat.

Faneuil Hall, Boston

Xconomy: So how did Street View originally come about?

Luc Vincent: I worked mostly on books for the first two years. But the same day I joined Google, I was put in meetings about collaborations with Stanford to do research [on gathering images]. I turned this into a Google “20 percent” project, and found some more people to work on it. Pretty soon I was herding cats.

Larry Page himself was interested in this when I joined Google. We were not really motivated by money originally—just building compelling services. We focused on the scale. We were really willing to spend money and engineering [resources] because we thought it would be useful to people. At Google, we start small, we show demos, and we iterate.

X: What was the biggest challenge in getting the project going?

LV: There were tons of challenges. Early on, we had no funding per se. We got people to help with time and equipment. When we started with Stanford, we were working with the DARPA Grand Challenge [robotic car] team. We used [one of their cars, with a driver] to collect our first test imagery. These cars were too fancy and automated, so we drained the battery multiple times. If you drain the battery, the A/C stopped working. It was summer and we were trying to collect data, and we had … Next Page »

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