Behind the scenes of how Google brought Street View to the Pyramids

Google is turning to locals to help build out Street View imagery as it takes its mapping services to pastures new.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor
The Great Sphinx of Giza, as seen by Street View. Image: Street View/ZDNet

Perhaps best known for its mapping of roads and thoroughfares, Google Street View also offers 360-degree panoramic images of landmarks such as Stonehenge and the Palace of Versailles, alongside university campuses, zoos, and theme parks such as Legoland California.

Street View — which has been prevalent in the US and parts of Europe for some time — is also increasingly being expanded to other parts of the world, with locations in Chile, Cambodia, and Botswana all being added to the service in the recent months.

New Street View images in MENA

Parts of the Middle East have also been included in this recent expansion. Earlier this month, Google launched a series of 'Special Collects' in Egypt, marking the first time street level imagery has been used in the country.

Covering the Pyramids, along with five other ancient sites, the technology allows internet users to get a different perspective on some of these well-known historic locations.

And with the country's tourism industry still struggling to recover to previous levels, the images may be the only way that some people will ever see these sites; for others, they could be a trigger to book that trip of a lifetime.

"When launching a whole country, usually 20 to 30 percent of Street View views in a country come from abroad," Tarek Abdalla, head of marketing for MENA at Google, told ZDNet.

"We also know from surveys that Street View is a great source of planning for tourists and we do hope that more people will be inspired to travel to the country after viewing the images."

Alongside the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, other locations featured in this launch include The Pyramid of Djoser, which was the world's first pyramid, the historic Hanging Church, and the medieval Cairo Citadel.

These striking new images from historic sites in Egypt contrast starkly with earlier efforts in the region, which focused instead on ultra-modern landmarks such as the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and the world tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

How Google does it

Given the height of the Burj, and the terrain around many of Egypt's famous spots, these images cannot be captured via Google Street View cars.

Instead, these contrasting locations were captured by a very different technology: the Trekker, a wearable (and rather sizeable) 40lbs backpack with a camera system built into the top.

As Joyce Baz, Google's communications manager for the Middle East North Africa told ZDNet, this practical solution means that Street View can "go down footpaths, tracks and narrow pathways to get images of areas of natural beauty or tourist sites".

The backpack is "a little over a metre in height when set on the ground", Baz said, "and when worn, the camera system extends above the operator's shoulders. There are 15 lenses at the top of the mast, each pointed in a different direction that enables to create a 360-degree panoramic view."

Alongside the need to get off-road, trekkers also had to factor in the weather conditions in the region, as this too can impact on the digital imagery. As amateur photographers in the region know, sand, heat haze, and dehydration are all risks to consider, while humidity can fog your lense and potentially damage even the most hard of kit (as I've discovered previously to my own cost!).

Dig deeper

Views, a micro site launched by Google last year, features behind-the-scenes stories from some of the technology giants popular Street View collections, offering video and audio content as well as the expected photographic imagery.

The site allows users to experience what it feels like to stand outside the Burj tower in a window washing basket (although if you've seen Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, you may already know what that feels like), or to find out more about the history of the Pyramids.

What's next?

The presence of Google's cars on the streets of Dubai earlier this year suggests that a more typical Street View of public roads in the region may be in the offing, but Google remains tight-lipped about this possibility and the identity of any future special collects.

Despite sightings of Google's Street View cars in Dubai earlier this year attracting a lot of excitement among local tech enthusiasts, the company told ZDNet that it has "no plans to announce Street View in MENA yet". The company is, however, "very keen" to add these elements to Google Maps though, Baz says.

With Google Maps now seeing more than one billion users per month and over 20 percent of search queries on Google being location-related, it's likely that demand for this type of digital imagery is set to grow.

And given that the Gulf region possesses some of the highest levels of smartphone penetration in the world, and that individuals can borrow their own Trekker (an intriguing "behind the scenes" section on the Google website explains how), it will be interesting to see if citizen-led efforts will help develop Google's services in future.

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