Answer Man: Smile, you're on Google car camera!

News-DemocratJune 11, 2013 

Q. I've recently seen a car driving around the metro-east with a Google logo and something that looks like a radar antenna on the roof. What's the story?

-- C.J., of Mascoutah

A. Whether it's Piccadilly Circus in London or the Sistine Chapel in Rome, one of the marvels of the Internet is being able to manipulate those amazing, 360-degree, ground-level panoramic views with your computer mouse.

Google calls it Street View, and it allows anyone with a computer to become a tourist without taking off his bunny slippers. You can take a virtual walk down streets, tour art museums or peek inside the White House while you sip your morning coffee.

It has become so commonplace that we may forget the sweat that still goes into collecting and processing the pictures. For six years, Google has been sending out vans, cars, bicycles, hikers -- even snowmobiles -- on seven continents to build their collection of images. And like that Energizer bunny, they just keep going and going. At this moment, they have crews in 23 states -- including Christian and St. Clair counties in Illinois.

It started in 2007 as an experimental project in five U.S. cities. The high-tech firm packed several computers into the back of an SUV, stuck cameras, lasers and a GPS device on top, and set out taking pictures.

Since then, they've taken their work worldwide, switching from SUVs and vans to a fleet of passenger cars After several generations of cameras, the car you spotted now has a system with 15 lenses that can take a photo in every direction.

The car also has motion sensors to track its position, a hard drive to store data and lasers to capture three-dimensional measurements that can determine distances within the Street View imagery. Instead of a big rack of computers, it now needs just one small mechanical brain to run the system.

But that's just for your everyday shoots through towns and cities. For remote locations or special circumstances like inside art museums, the company has had to become increasingly ingenious.

While mountain biking one day, for example, Google engineer Dan Ratner realized he could do on two wheels what normally took four. He wound up perfecting a bicycle-based camera system called the Trike, which is used to photograph parks, trails, college campus and sports stadiums.

But you can't take a bicycle inside the White House, so Google fit all of the equipment into an even smaller platform, which the company calls the Trolley. Want to shoot a ski resort? No problem. Just take some 2-by-4s, duct tape and extra rugged hard drives wrapped in ski jackets to keep them warm and put it all on a snowmobile.

Finally, where even these can't go, Google has the Trekker, a wearable backpack with that 15-lens camera system on top. Operated by an Android device, the system takes photos about every 2.5 seconds and was initially used for Google's Grand Canyon vistas.

It's not just a matter of zipping in and out for a few photos, though. You can't take pictures in fog, snow or rain. You also want the sun high enough to eliminate deep shadows, so in the United States, for example, they'll start in the South in winter and move progressively north in the spring and summer.

Then, comes the really hard part: using the GPS readings and data from other sensors to determine precisely where the photos were taken so the pictures can be matched with traditional maps.

"The GPS device shows us the car's exact location most of the time, but sometimes factors like tall buildings block the signal," Google notes. "Data from the other sensors (measuring speed and direction, for example) helps us fill in those gaps. We can construct the car's route accurately by combining these signals."

But that's only half the job. To finally achieve those jaw-dropping panoramas, Google technicians have to take all of those overlapping photos from that 15-lens camera and seamlessly "stitch" them together for the 360-degree views that you can move around so effortlessly on your phone or computer. Faces and other personal information are generally blurred.

The process has had its bumps in the road -- both figuratively and literally. Earlier this year, for example, Google was fined $7 million after some of its Street View cars were found to be stealing emails, passwords and other information by tapping into private Wi-Fi networks as they drove along from 2008 to May 2010.

Now, though, the company says its project is once again the picture of innocence as it continues to photograph the planet.

Today's trivia

How did the Boston Bruins get their nickname -- and what does it mean?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: A native of Scotland, David Dunbar Buick left school when he was 15 and went to work for a plumbing goods company, eventually taking it over 13 years later. During that time, he invented a lawn sprinkler and a cheaper method of coating cast iron with enamel. A decade later, he turned his attention to the internal combustion engine and, in 1903, founded the Buick Motor Co. Three years later, he accepted a severance package and left the company that continues to us his ancestral coat of arms -- the trishield -- as its iconic emblem on every car.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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