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Smile, you’re on candid camera

The iconic Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden as it appears on Google Street View

Google Street View has arrived in the Cape Winelands. The groundbreaking system was launched during an innovative teleconference last Thursday, led by Google product manager for Europe and Africa, Jarda Bengle, speaking from Google’s European offices in Zurich, Switzerland.

Mr Bengle “walked” participating media people through the finer details of Google Street View, the controversial mapping system that allows users to move virtually around a growing variety of places of interest from the comfort of home, provide the user has a reasonably fast Internet connection. The controversy arose when Street View was first mooted, because it was seen in some quarters to be a violation of personal privacy, with the up close and personal views that it made available over the Internet of people, places, motor vehicles, homes, and businesses.

The walk around of Warwick Estate as it appears on Google Street View

Critics of the system have said that it can be used by criminals to “case” possible locations in preparation for committing such crimes as housebreaking and burglary, but as Mr Bengle pointed out during his presentation, the images available on Street View are not real time. He also pointed out that wherever people and motor vehicles appear in Street View images, faces and number plates are “blurred out” before they are posted. Generally, the images are of places of public interest and, if anybody encounters an image which they believe violates their right to privacy, it can be reported to Google, who will then discontinue use of the image.

Images are captured by Street View cars which have special cameras that take photographs as they drive down public roads. Once the photographs have been taken they go through computer processing to make them ready for use on Google Maps. When enough imagery is collected and processed for an area, it is added to Google Maps. This could take several months, which means that the imagery isn’t real-time.

“Street View already has 40 000 miles of imagery of situations and places you would see in South Africa when driving around,” said Mr Bengle. Street level imagery now available includes seven of South Africa’s new football stadiums, and around 27 South African towns and cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth, helping tourists get to know the local area or navigate their way to their hotel. Top tourist attractions can now be explored in detail too – there’s dramatic coastal scenery in the Cape; the urban buzz of Soweto, home to Nelson Mandela; or the world renowned Kruger National Park, to wander at your leisure.

The extent to which other wine regions enjoy attention: this estate in St Emillion in the Bordeaux region of France rates a road sign and little else.

Of particular interest to the local community, are the 12 Cape wine estates that are available on Street View. Bouchard Finlayson, De Rust, De Wetshof, Fairview, Jordan, Hamilton Russell, Klein Constantia, Meerlust, Morgenster, Rustenberg, Vilafonté and Warwick are the first wine estates world wide to be captured by Street View, although Google SA communications manager Julie Taylor said that the possibility of other wine estates elsewhere in the world having been imaged in the course of rolling out Street View elsewhere (it was launched in the US in 2007) could not be ruled out. The wineries imaged in South Africa however, are the result of a focussed effort to capture images of interest to potential visitors to each of the wineries, and she was not wrong.

A fairly diligent search in the Napa Valley, California revealed a number of references to wineries, but only in form of indicators pointing to wineries on either side of the road, and a “visit” to Saint-Émilion in the Bordeaux region of France, revealed little more than a blurry road sing indicating the presence of a wine estate.

By contrast, navigating to the Warwick Estate just outside Stellenbosch reveals a 360 ground level view from the centre of the parking lot, showing the estates tasting room, cellar complex, and restaurant. According to Ms Taylor, other Cape Winelands wineries will be imaged in the future.

Availability of Google Street View is indicated by what is called “Pegman”, a small figure that sits atop the zoom indicator in the top left corner of Google Maps images. If Street View is available anywhere on the displayed image Pegman turns orange. You can access Street View in one of two ways. Simply continue to zoom in by double clicking on the location you wish to view, or by dragging and dropping Pegman on the required location. The view will change to street level and the stored images will be displayed.

You can navigate by following the “navigation line” which indicates the plane in which you can move to see different views of the selected location, and you can zoom in by double clicking a specific spot, or by rotating your mouse wheel forward. 360 degree views are available at any point, simply by grabbing a spot on the image by holding down the left mouse button, and rotating left or right. Tilting up and down will give a view angled up and down 90 degrees. 360 degree rotation may also be engaged by grabbing the compass insignia in the top left corner of the image and rotating it around the compass rose. As you move your mouse cursor around an image, an opaque rectangle will appear which to indicate a “zoomable” view, and an opaque ellipsis will appear to indicate directional navigation. Both are activated by double clicking.

If a road has Street View images, it will be highlighted in blue, allowing you to zoom in and virtually travel down the road by clicking successively. It is a bit disconcerting, as approaching vehicles seem to rush towards you at great speed, before disappearing in a blur, after which the image stabilises and resolves into focus.

Street View provides 360 degree panoramic views in Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Maps for Mobile. It covers hundreds of cities in 21 countries, and it also includes over 50 landmarks and world heritage sites.

Table Mountain is not one of those world heritage sites, although the lower cable station is imaged, showing a lengthy queue of tourists waiting to buy tickets for the ride up and down the mountain.

Other than the 12 Stellenbosch wine estates imaged so far, and many kilometres of Cape Town’s streets, you can also wander through the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, but none of the other well known local landmarks such as the Castle of Good Hope or Cape Point are available as yet.

Further information about Google Streetview is available at http://www.google.co.za/streetview.

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