Google puts the punters streets ahead
IF you are the kind of traveller who takes pretrip research seriously, then Google Street View will transport you to virtual heaven. Street View is an online tool that lets anyone take a ground-level tour of cities, towns and even regional areas by viewing millions of Google’s 360-degree snapshots.
The photographs are taken by special cameras mounted atop a fleet of cars that travel around every street and highway in a targeted area. Launched in May last year using a small selection of US cities, Street View has grown to include hundreds of sites across the US, France, Italy, Japan and now Australia.
Launched here earlier this month, the Google initiative has been particularly ambitious, with Street View images available of everything from Sydney Harbour to the Kimberley, from the Queensland coast to the Nullarbor. But not everyone is excited. In the US, Street View’s launch sparked debate over privacy issues after the 360-degree cameras captured people during private moments or in potentially embarrassing positions (from women unwittingly flashing underwear to men entering adult bookstores or leaving strip clubs).
Google has responded to criticism by blurring the faces of people caught by Street View, obscuring numberplates and making it easier for people to request shots be removed. In addition, it only posts images that are already visible from public roads.
For travellers (at least those not caught in compromising positions) Street View has all manner of uses.
If you’re heading for Las Vegas or San Francisco, you can take a virtual tour around your preferred city to get your bearings, scout tourist sites or check out restaurants.
Alternatively, you may simply want to explore some interesting or remote destinations or get a feel for events such as, say, the Tour de France, by traversing the entire route using your mouse.
‘‘ It allows people to make informed decisions,’’ says Google’s head of travel in Australia, Claire Hatton. ‘‘ You can confirm your hotel really is 100m from the beach.’’
Not surprisingly, Tourism Australia has lauded Street View for offering travellers a ‘‘ whole new way to research Australia’’ and tourism marketers across the world are hoping for a Google drive-by. Next country on the list is New Zealand, which will be added before the end of the year. Google wants to eventually map the entire planet, one street, dirt road or dusty track at a time.
While Street View offers plenty of upsides for travellers, you have to wonder whether there also can be downsides.
For a start, will tools such as Street View, when combined with everything from traveller reviews on TripAdvisor to videos on YouTube and even carbon footprint calculators, simply add up to too much information?
Will pre-trip research become the sort of confusing computer-bound chore we go on holiday to escape?
Google recently conducted research on internet users in Australia and found people start planning domestic holidays almost four months in advance and six months ahead for overseas trips.
After a month of starting the process, just 20 per cent of users had completed their entire holiday purchase, a much lower proportion compared with purchases such as cars (79 per cent completed within a month) and insurance (92 per cent).
Hatton says Google asked people why they took so long and found that rather than being overwhelmed with information, many simply enjoyed the process of planning a holiday.
‘‘ Travel is an emotional purchase and it’s aspirational,’’ Hatton says. ‘‘ It’s about dreaming and learning. And people like to find out about places in the world.’’ David Carroll’s column on new travel technology appears monthly in Travel&Indulgence.