Google puts the pun­ters streets ahead

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Adventure Holidays - THE SWITCHED-ON TOURIST David Car­roll

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.

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