Google Street View

Live everyone else in the UK (all of them, without exception) I’ve been enjoying the new Google Street View imagery of our little country. Aside from echoing the general “wow, it’s amazing” feeling, two other thoughts have occurred to me.

Today is tomorrow’s past

Street View might be pretty amazing now but it’s only going to get more amazing. Even if the technology stays exactly the same — which it won’t, it will only get better — Google Street View will become increasingly gob-smacking as the decades pass.

Imagine in, say, 2059 looking up a location on Google Maps and being able to dial the view back fifty years to see what that building looked like in 2009. Zoom back and forth in time to see how the place changed as decades flip by. That will be amazing.

The Street View images we have today, and those generated subsequently, will become increasingly fascinating as the years and decades and centuries go by. Imagine being able to look at where you live as it was in 1709. That’s what it’ll be like for someone looking back on today’s Street View imagery in 2309.

Except by then, of course, we won’t be looking at Street View on a monitor. The images will be projected onto our vision as we look at the real building and we’ll be able to simply flip back to see our surroundings as they looked in the past. I remember walking through my home town a couple of decades ago wishing such a tool existed. I couldn’t imagine how it could work then. Now I can.

Google Street View might seem amazing now. But it is currently at the least interesting stage it will ever be.

As an aside: Assuming Google (or someone) keeps this all going, I hope they un-blur all those faces and number plates after a while. Maybe after thirty years. No one complains about invasions of privacy in old photos.

Google Room View

Street View is great and everything, but it only shows us the outside of buildings. Any slight peep through the curtains into an interior is an invasion of privacy to be avoided.

But here’s a project for someone. Start scraping property websites like Rightmove and Property Finder (or your local equivalent). Archive all the photos of the insides of properties and back gardens along with any location information available.

You won’t be able to do much with all this right now before you receive shirty letters from lawyers. But be patient… One day you’ll have a vast archive of photos of building interiors. Hopefully, with a bit of location information and maybe some exceedingly clever magic that matches photos of the fronts of properties up with their respective Street View images, you’ll be able to provide a historical view inside the buildings we can only see the exteriors of in Street View.

Imagine not only being able to dial back to see what the outside of your home looked like fifty years ago, but to see what your bedroom looked like then. When did that wall get knocked down? What furniture did they think looked good back then?

Sure, it’ll be a very patchy record, and the photos will be annoyingly low resolution, but all those pictures of interiors that currently vanish after a few weeks seem like a huge wasted opportunity right now.


  • Funny, I had the same idea (kinda) as I toured Mexico City last week in a tour bus with iPod headphones that jacked into a running commentary on the city. In the future, maybe we'll have glasses that we can use to provide overlays on streets to extract info as we pass them by, like a GoogleStreet overlay on top of the real scene.

  • Since the devastating bush-fires in Australia there has been a number of people petitioning to have the Google street view data archived so that the residents of the towns would have a record of how they looked before they were destroyed.

    Marysville, which was completely destroyed by fire, was a historic and popular tourist destination as well as Kinglake, Flowerdale, Strathewen and Narbethong which were basically gutted.

    The facebook group is…

    Google are currently in discussions regarding preserving the street data so hopefully this is the way forward!

  • Coincidentally, professor David Silver at the University of San Francisco just had his class annotate a Google Map of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury (the assigment, the resulting map). While this isn't using Street View, it suggested to me a similar kind of opportunity of representing a place over time, e.g., imagining what it'd look like over 50 years.

    With the annotations, in addition to the "objective" view of the place, you also get more of a subjective perspective--even just in the way certain places are seen in terms of present uses vs past. For example, in the Haight Ashbury example, there's a note about the Graham Nash house. Later, it was the house of Bobby McFerrin. Today, someone else actually lives there, but that's not (yet) seen as important, etc.

  • While reading this great post, I had a similar idea as James and wondered about the Street View data that was available for New Orleans. I'm not sure if NOLA wants to be rebuilt the same as before but certainly the image archives would be amazing to see pre-Katrina vs 5-10 years from now.

  • It *is* amazing -- it exists right now in the most recent version of Google Earth, although that's aerial imagery. I've already found it useful: as I was trying to find a building I remembered from my childhood, I finally found that it had been torn down in the late 80s. Google Earth had imagery of the area from the late 40s, then the 80s, 90s, and today, and I was able to see how the property developed over 60 years.

  • this has been done from a graffiti point of view here:…

  • Here's an example from Hong Kong - at one level of resolution a bay on Lantau island is still visible via Google's Satellite View. At a closer level, Google then shows the reclamation that occurred between the two photos being taken. (That was the land that was reclaimed to build Hong Kong Disneyland.)

  • Hello... I wrote something about time travel on maps back when Google Maps first appeared, which I thought you might be interested in... Feels like ages ago doesn't it! magicalnihilism.wordpr…

  • See Matt, all my good ideas are just your hand-me-downs!

  • There's no reason that this project can't begin now. Google should consider opening the API to allow images to be added that depict certain locations in the past (with proper dating of the images, of course). Crowdsourcing this could eliminate any clearly false images.

  • Great idea. Lots of uses for documenting change over time: polar caps, deforestation, beach erosion, population distribution, traffic patterns, air traffic, flood zones, weather patterns, etc. - large-scale trends. Add other parts of the EM spectrum like heat patterns and radio frequency usage. Geotagged photos and videos mined for 3D modeling.

    More ominously, RFID data from tagged objects, GPS info from vehicles, data from transit cards, individual phones, purchase data from debit or credit cards, surveillance camera feeds.

    I can see how it'd be a mixed bag...

  • Anticipating Google Street View, Canterbury Heritage has been geo-tagging vintage Christchurch (NZ) streetscapes since 2005. 8,829 so far...

  • For a slightly different take on the issue: richardsmedianet.blogs…

    I am conceptualizing as I write.

    I especially liked Matt's article and the research within. Thanks Matt.

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7 Apr 2009 at Twitter

  • 5:04pm: Having spread my hacking TB cough around the Schwebb cave today, time to take it home.
  • 10:07am: And He said that because His Son would die on Friday, all would meet the Shepherdess on Thursday morning instead this week.
  • 7:43am: Right now and all night my mouth has tasted of mucus. I thought you should know.

7 Apr 2009 in Links