'Burgh goes virtual on Google

3D cityscapes to appear on Google Maps' Street View

Smile, Pittsburgh -- you're on Google-vision.

Starting today, Pittsburgh joins the list of 14 cities that Internet users can tour online by using Google Maps' Street View. The service, which launched in May, offers three-dimensional, photographic views of cityscapes that a user can navigate street by street to locate everything from apartments to gas stations to theaters.

With Street View, dragging and dropping the icon of a human figure onto a highlighted street will pull up a photo of the street, placing the user in a virtual world in which it is possible to move forward, backward, to the side -- even to rotate 360 degrees.

Street View is not, as some might fear, real-time video. Pulling up a view of Downtown will not show people walking down Smithfield Street -- the "Simpsons" episode in which Marge Simpson accidentally spies a naked Homer on a hammock got it wrong.

Instead, the images are huge collections of photos taken by people driving about in standard vehicles "equipped with imaging technology that gathers 3D geometric data," said spokeswoman Kat Malinkowski.

Still, issues of privacy and security have been raised since the May debut of the service. In Miami, Google's cameras photographed a man receiving a ticket from the police, and in San Francisco, cameras captured a shot of a man scaling a locked gate.

Despite those exceptions, there are surprisingly few people in Street View's panoramas, and the ones who do appear seem incidental to the streetscape itself, never the object of focus. And issues of privacy have become less urgent since the advent of the cameraphone, Michael Jones, Google's chief technologist, told The Economist. "We all are happy to tolerate things that would have previously been considered intolerable," he said.

But if a user does discover that she, or someone she knows, is plainly visible in Street View and does not want to be, "We have enabled an easy reporting-and-removal process for objectionable images and have provided users with easily accessible tools for flagging inappropriate or sensitive imagery for review and removal," Street View product manager Stephen Chau said.

The new capabilities come in response to unrelenting demand, said Mr. Chau.

"Our users have had an incredible appetite for imagery in our mapping services," he said.

Indeed, online mapping has come a long way since GeoSystems Global Corporation created MapQuest.com in 1996.

What started out as simply a way to find directions from point A to point B has become a framework for mapping all manner of information, as users create "mashups" like housingmaps.com, which combines the apartment listings from Craigslist.com with Google Maps to let people see where listings are located. Or Zillow.com, which uses Microsoft's Virtual Earth to map real estate data across the United States.

Google ventured into geographic search with its 2004 acquisition of Keyhole, a firm whose software allowed Web-based viewing of satellite images. Renamed Google Earth, the software has been downloaded millions of times by Google users.

When first introduced, Street View provided detailed mapping for San Francisco, New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Denver. Later, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla., were added. Today, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., are joining the list along with Pittsburgh.

The city has been on Google's radar screen since the company opened an office in the Collaborative Innovation Center on Carnegie Mellon University's campus last November.

Google went public in August 2004 with an unusual "Dutch Auction" IPO in which its shares were priced at $100.01. Since then, investors have sent share prices to levels eerily reminiscent of those attained by high-flyers in the late 1990's dot-com boom. Yesterday, the company's stock capped a month-long rally by breaking the $600 mark, closing at $609.02.

Elwin Green can be reached at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969. First Published October 9, 2007 4:00 AM


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