Close-up on 'Street View' in Bangalore

Close-up on 'Street View' in Bangalore

Close-up on 'Street View' in Bangalore

Virtual reality: Google uses cars and tricycles to capture images for ‘Street View’. Company officials say they will increase the number of vehicles in Bangalore as the project unfolds.

Google has let loose an unspecified number of cars and tricycles to photograph Bangalore’s streets. As these vehicles drive around, the multiple cameras mounted on them furiously snap pictures in all directions. They produce flat images, which are then stitched together to produce a mesmerising 360-degree view of the streets.

These images will help you take a virtual walk on any street in Bangalore. You will be able to turn your head in any direction and set your eyes on what you want to see.

Google recently announced that it was extending its ‘Street View’ project, which has already covered 27 countries, to India. It said it was kicking off the project from Bangalore as the city was the tech capital of the country. Other reasons may have possibly influenced the decision, which the polite Google officials refrained from mentioning.

They expect the project to face several India-specific challenges: narrow, chaotic roads, traffic, weather, network problems. Bangalore famously offers a good sample of all of these challenges.  If ‘Street View’ cars can pass the Bangalore test, they will be able to drive elsewhere with ease.  

It also helps that Bangalore is smaller than Mumbai and Delhi, which appear to be next on the rollout list. It will be quicker to execute the project here.

Vinay Goel, product head of Google India, declined to disclose how many Google cars are driving around in Bangalore. The number is currently small but would increase as the project unfolds, he said.  He also did not want to set any deadline for ‘Street View’ to show Bangalore’s images. 

‘Street View’ images are taken when the traffic is thin and weather favourable without rain or overcast conditions. Goel said it also takes time to get permission to photograph places of public interest such as Lalbagh and Bangalore Palace. After photographs are captured, some more time would be needed to stitch them together. The project may take several months to complete, he added.

After Bangalore, ‘Street View’ would drive into other Indian cities depending on how fast the local authorities wave the green flag. ‘Street View’ would not be limited to metros, but extend to smaller cities as well, he said.

The effort involved in producing three dimensional views of all streets of all Indian important cities is considerable. So, how much is Google spending on the project and how does it profit from it? Goel said he himself did not know what Google was investing on ‘Street View’. Whatever the number, it is unlikely to dent Google’s balance sheet which posted a revenue of 31 billion dollars in 2010.

Goel said Google was not doing ‘Street View’ to make money, but to make its maps more immersive and enable people in India enjoy a technology that was available only in the developed world till now.

Privacy concerns

The ‘Street View’ project, which started in 2007, has run into trouble elsewhere largely over privacy issues. Several countries mostly in Europe have slapped regulations on ‘Street View’ or even banned it for sometime over privacy issues. Greece and Czech Republic have stopped Google cars in the past till the company responded to questions like how long it planned to keep the photographs.

In Germany, individuals have the option of getting their homes blurred on the ‘Street View’ and three percent of Germans have done that. Switzerland has asked Google to blur the faces and number plates it captures more effectively that it is presently doing so, using manual processes if required.

USA revised a policy and now reportedly prevents Google cars from driving into military installations.

Last year, the opposition to ‘Street View’ got shrill when Google disclosed that its cars were collecting more than pictures. An unauthorised piece of software had enabled its equipment to capture activities of unprotected wi-fi networks – passwords, emails, web sites visited etc, Google said. While it is cooperating with officials in various countries to investigate the breach and destroy wi-fi data, ‘Street View’ was banned in Austria for nearly a year after the scandal. France slapped a fine of $100,000, while Netherlands is investigating Google on a similar issue.

But in India ‘Street View’ has not stirred up any debate so far, probably as Google’s announcement came in abruptly without any notice. Goel said the company was willing to engage with privacy advocates. “Google cars will not capture anything you and I cannot photograph on a public road with a camera,” he said.

Prashant Iyengar, a privacy advocate, says by blurring faces and number plates Google has been able to overcome the resistance in other countries. He does not expect ‘Street View’ to raise any controversy in India, but says the project invades the privacy of homeless people, who may not have the ability to object to it. ‘Street View’ may also threaten street hawkers, who could be selling their ware in places they are not supposed to, he adds. 

Streetview may find terror a trickier issue to handle than privacy in India. A few years ago former President Abdul Kalam and Indian defence authorities had objected to Google Earth, which stitches together satellite images of the Planet’s surface, including military installations of different countries.

Terrorist groups have been found reconnoitering their potential targets in several instances. While ‘Street View’ does not give them any privileged information, to a small extent it may make their job easier. But that could very well be a small risk to take for a project that promises to let you travel the world virtually.

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