Google’s Street View “Trike” at Faneuil Hall Today: Q&A with Digital Imaging Mastermind Luc Vincent

9/10/10Follow @gthuang

If you’re in the Faneuil Hall area of Boston today, look out for the trike. That would be the Google Street View Trike, a pedicab-like contraption mounted with a camera and computer equipment. It’s meant to capture 360-degree, street-level images of places where Google’s fleet of Street View cars can’t go—pedestrian malls, university campuses, parks, hiking trails, and so forth.

As my colleague Wade reported last November, Faneuil Hall was a finalist for the trike treatment, competing against Chicago’s Navy Pier and San Francisco’s Pier 39 in the pedestrian mall category (via online voting). Well, the cradle of liberty won out, and today, Google is showing up to take the pictures. They should be viewable in Google Maps sometime in the coming months, the company says. (You can read more about the nuts and bolts of the trike project in Wade’s interview with senior mechanical engineer Dan Ratner.)

Of course, it’s all great marketing for Google. But it’s also a really interesting step in the evolution of digital imaging technology, and how consumers can experience the richer details of the real world while online. And it could eventually tie into Google’s local search business.

So I decided to do a deeper dive into Google Street View, which is an ongoing project in all 50 U.S. states and dozens of countries around the world. Yesterday I spoke with the mastermind of the Street View project, engineering director Luc Vincent, who’s based in Silicon Valley.

Vincent is a renowned expert in image processing and computer vision. A native of France, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Robotics Laboratory in the early 1990s before developing his career at Xerox Imaging Systems in Peabody, MA. From there, he moved out west and spent time at ScanSoft, Xerox PARC, and LizardTech, before joining Google in 2004, originally to work on Google book search.

We talked about the genesis and history of Google Street View, as well as the future of geo-search and imaging—its significance to the company, how far Google wants to go (hint: everywhere), and how it deals with privacy issues. Here are some edited highlights from our chat.

Faneuil Hall, Boston

Xconomy: So how did Street View originally come about?

Luc Vincent: I worked mostly on books for the first two years. But the same day I joined Google, I was put in meetings about collaborations with Stanford to do research [on gathering images]. I turned this into a Google “20 percent” project, and found some more people to work on it. Pretty soon I was herding cats.

Larry Page himself was interested in this when I joined Google. We were not really motivated by money originally—just building compelling services. We focused on the scale. We were really willing to spend money and engineering [resources] because we thought it would be useful to people. At Google, we start small, we show demos, and we iterate.

X: What was the biggest challenge in getting the project going?

LV: There were tons of challenges. Early on, we had no funding per se. We got people to help with time and equipment. When we started with Stanford, we were working with the DARPA Grand Challenge [robotic car] team. We used [one of their cars, with a driver] to collect our first test imagery. These cars were too fancy and automated, so we drained the battery multiple times. If you drain the battery, the A/C stopped working. It was summer and we were trying to collect data, and we had lots of equipment in the car. We had to put the generator on the roof. But we made a nice enough demo for the execs. Then we got approval to make this a real project and hire a few engineers. That was late 2005.

X: So then what did you learn?

LV: What’s difficult is to go everywhere. The dominant cost is operations—we had lots of cameras, lasers in all directions, so much equipment that we had to have a mini data center in the back of the van. The system was so overdesigned that in fact there was always something going wrong with this. So instead we decided to focus on collecting only imagery, at large scale. We went to a system with an off-the-shelf camera and computer. That we were able to scale quickly. (We spent 2006 to make the product, and built the front end. In early spring 2007, we moved to off-the-shelf.)

The first five cities launched in May 2007—San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Miami, and Denver. We had Google security guys drive the vans, and we drove some ourselves.

X: How did the trike project start (see photo below), and what’s the significance to the company?

LV: Google being Google, we have great ambition to keep expanding and doing new things. After we covered roads, people started asking us about going off-road or inside. We’re slowly moving in this direction. We start with the trike—we put the same equipment as in the car, in something human powered—for campuses, pedestrian areas, bike trails. We don’t want to leave it at this. We are experimenting with other systems to go indoors. We have more portable systems, to put in a backpack. We’ve gone in a snowmobile, for the Olympic Village in Whistler.

We want to capture areas that matter for historical or shopping reasons. We have collaborations with locations like Faneuil Hall, Boston University, U. Penn, and San Diego State. A number of universities see this could help students and parents [with virtual campus tours], and help keep alumni better connected. [Trike images from San Diego State University and San Diego Zoo are currently viewable, and upcoming sites include Rochester Institute of Technology, Boulder Creek Path in Colorado, and the Detroit Zoo---Eds.]

The Google Street View Trike

X: How do you deal with consumer privacy issues?

LV: Google takes this very seriously. We provide very easy ways for people to report problems—you complete a form and submit it. A lot of stuff [images] we’ve removed because of users. We also do large-scale [automatic] detection of faces and license plates in the images. It’s never been done at this scale. It’s automatic 99.9 percent of the time. The rest is manual.

X: Where is this all going for Google? What’s the impact on the business side?

LV: What we would love is to be able to take you anywhere. Anywhere you navigate using maps or a phone or Google Earth, you’re able to see high-quality photos and navigate through them. We want to give you the best possible view of what you want to see. Whether it’s areas, street-level, whether in a city or countryside or a park.

We collect all this imagery, and we might not collect it all ourselves—there are user photos we can match to street-view imagery, in key touristy areas. We want to find more of those photos. (We work closely with Steve Seitz, who’s at Google and University of Washington, on this.)

For now, we don’t have plans to monetize this. We are still expanding. Our goal is to make our maps products more compelling for our users. Down the road, who knows?

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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