Google's Street View maps are headed into the backcountry. Earlier this week, two teams from Google strapped on sophisticated backpacks jammed with cameras, gyroscopes and other gadgets, and descended to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. But this is just the first step in the search giant's plan to digitally map and photograph the world's wild places.
Luc Vincent — who runs Google's Street View — met up with a small group of reporters on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon this week.
Strapped to a backpack towering over his head was a set of cameras, arranged in what he called "a soccer ball configuration."
This contraption is the Google Trekker.
When you look at it on someone's back, it appears incredibly unstable — so top-heavy that the person would likely fall over.
But Vincent's team has spent the better part of a year trying to lighten the load. The Trekker — which has most of the gear crammed into Google's famous Street View cars — weighs only 40 pounds.
"It's not too bad," Vincent said. "The batteries are on the bottom, so it sort of compensates for the top-heavy camera on top. I've skied with it to test it, this winter. It was fine."
Earlier this week, the Google Trekker went on its first real trip.
An 'Iconic' First Trek
The Trekker has 15 specially designed lenses — carefully arranged inside a custom-made, brightly colored metal ball. On top, there are two black bumps holding the Trekker's twin GPS receivers.
And that soccer ball-like thing sits on a metal frame high in the air — above Vincent's head — so it has a clear shot of everything around him.
Google plans to use the Trekker to map and photograph places its Street View cars — and tricycles — can't go. And that's what brought Vincent's team to the Grand Canyon.
"This is iconic — this is were we have to go first," Vincent said.
When we met, the sun wasn't up. But Vincent was so excited, he was bouncing on the balls of his feet, even with the 40 pounds of gadgets strapped to his back.
"I feel awesome to be here," he said. "We have been working on taking this technology to the trails for a long time. I want to go places where we can go anyway, but by foot."
Google sent two teams down. As the sky lightened, James Hoffacker booted up an Android phone, attached to the other Trekker making the trip.
He was running through the system when Ryan Falor walked up and started teasing. Falor runs special collections at Street View.
"James is one of the engineers on the Street View team we recruited because he is one of the more athletically fit guys to carry all the gear down and back up for us," Falor said.
Falor laughingly assured me that Hoffacker wasn't there for his technical prowess — he was brought along for brawn. But building the Trekker was a technical challenge.
Each image the Trekker collects will have to be tagged with precise location data that records where it was taken and at what angle. Software will smooth out the gait of the hiker carrying it. It will even correct for differences in their heights. But to make this all work, the location data have to be precise. Relying on GPS isn't good enough — and deep inside the canyon, GPS probably won't work.
"So we have accelerometers, gyros, magnetometer as well as GPS — all of that sensor data is combined to place the images and place the orientation of the images right," Falor said.
Considering Hiker Safety
The end result will be a smooth, continuous eye-level view of the trail. It will allow anyone who is online — at home or with a smartphone — to virtually peer down the Bright Angel trail and see the sun stream over the rim of the canyon walls. The final product won't be posted for a few months, but if everything goes well, Falor promised it will be accurate.
"If people want to use this to know where to go, it has to be accurate," he said. Even more so back here, where a misstep could send you plunging. "You may not want to walk off a trail," he laughed.
Still, some worry that as Google maps the backcountry this way, more and more people will think they can wander into the wilderness with a cellphone and little else.
Maureen Oltrogge, who runs public affairs for Grand Canyon National Park, says each year the rangers rescue 200 to 300 hikers from the canyon. Often they are day-trippers who decide to try to hike down on a whim.
"It's really important if you are going to be taking any kind of hike to check in with our backcountry office, to do the research, to just come prepared," she said.
The weather in the canyon here can be extreme. The elevation on the north side is close to 8,000 feet above sea level. And the temperature deep inside the canyon can be 20 degrees higher than the rim.
"It can be in excess of 110 or 120 degrees in the inner canyon," Oltrogge said.
In the winter it can be frigid. Google, however, will only make these maps when the sun is shining. Rain on the lenses simply doesn't work. These maps won't include any information about temperature or weather — and won't tell you if trail conditions have changed.
Still, the photos will be panoramic — and as the teams got ready to drop over the rim and start their hike, the images promised to be gorgeous.
This is just the beginning. Google wants to send the Trekker on expeditions all over the world. Team members talk about everything from the Appalachian Trail to Antarctica — and one day maybe even Everest.