Posted by: GeekHiker | February 11, 2013

Just Like Being There?

Maybe you noticed the little line of text on the Google home page on Monday: “New! Explore the Grand Canyon with Street View on Google Maps“.  Yes, the future is here and the outdoors are now virtual.

Screenshot of today's Google landing page.

Screenshot of today’s Google landing page.

I first read about this new technology in a newspaper article a few months ago, showcasing the backpack with 15 cameras mounted on top linked to a series of hard drives and GPS units (all of it being, apparently, quite heavy) that allows a hiker to bring Google’s Street View technology out on the trail.  A few months if image clean-up later, and now the product has been unveiled for all to see.

When you think about it, it’s really perfect for today’s culture.  Why go somewhere when you can just sit behind your computer and scroll through any place on Earth you’d like to go?  No booking plane tickets or renting cars, nor reserving hotel rooms and campsites.  Now it’ll even be available for on the trail; you don’t need to get into any kind of shape or go to the trouble of scheduling one of the pack mule trips down into the Canyon.  Heck, you don’t even need to get up from your easy chair, stop pounding that bag of Doritos or put down that beer.  The trail is just a click away.

Okay, I’m jesting.  Like so many technologies, though, I’m of two minds about this.  Are there potential advantages to this that I’m not opposed to?  Sure.  Maybe it’s a good way to scout in advance a trail you’re unsure if you have the skills to tackle.  Certainly it has the potential to open up views of nature that, due to reasons such as physical disabilities or age, many would otherwise be unable to obtain.

Screenshot of the Google Street View trail page.

Screenshot of the Google Street View trail page.

At the same time, I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, and hiked partially into it.  Having looked at the images on Google’s site, I can tell you this: there is simply no way, and no screen big enough (sorry, 55-inch plasma owners) that the images can even begin to convey the immensity of actually being down inside the Canyon itself.

I think “being there” is important, and I can’t help but to see this technology as one more step down the path of people not perusing “being there,” using it as a replacement for the real thing.  It reminds me of my Mom, who will often pull one of her favorite movies off the shelf and say she’s “taking a trip to Greece” which, of course, she’s not.  I’d much prefer if my parents booked tickets and went and saw the real Greece.  I mean, I love watching “Lord of the Rings”, but being in New Zealand, even at some of the same shooting locations, is a far different, more rewarding, more immersive experience than watching the DVDs.

So I see it as part of a troublesome trend.  The trend that led to me meeting relatively few U.S. travelers outside of the country.  The one that’s taken us from multi-day holidays to mere weekenders.  The one that’s led to tour busses in the Grand Canyon stopping at scenic viewpoints so that people can take pictures for 10 minutes and say they’ve “been there”.  The trend that leads people in Yellowstone to never leave the road and the visitor centers, taking in all-to-brief views and buying DVDs of the scenery to watch back home.

And while I fully acknowledge that those trends have other influences as well (such as the economy, longer working hours, etc.), I wonder if options such as Street View don’t subconsciously compel people to be less demanding of being able to have the time for those experiences.  Somewhere, in the back of your mind, you know you can always download it.

Of course, it’s all optional: you don’t have to click on Street View, you can always go wherever you want to go.  Maybe the additional options are a good thing: just because it isn’t the one for me doesn’t necessarily make it bad.

What do you think?  Should every trail be put online as an easily clickable path?  Please comment below!

Image (c) Google

Image (c) Google



  1. This would be an awesome resource for developing augmented reality or C6 programs! As for the yellowstone tourists, is it maybe that a generation ago these visitors wouldn’t even go camping? I had a particularly entertaining experience where in the campsite across, the women stayed in the car until tent setup was complete, quickly transfered from car to tent and reversed the process in the morning. I’m pretty sure they felt very adventurous in the process. Remember that regular long distance travel is not something that [historically] everyone has access to.

    • Okay, clearly I’m going to have to google C6 programs now…

      Actually, most tourists in the early days of Yellowstone went camping, big expeditions with lots of gear, food and heavy canvas tents!

      • My point was more along the lines of “people with no previous exposure to outdoorsy hobbies now have access to yellowstone, even it their idea of pushing boundaries is very canned”. Did you know that some nyc residents consider central park wilderness?

  2. I think it is a useful trend. I don’t know anyone who, after seeing a city, park or trail on street view, has said “I don’t need to go there. I’ve already seen everything.” I think there are more people who have used street view and have said to themselves “I’ve got to go see this for myself.” I am also sure there are, as you noted, people who just can’t physically or economically go to these places and street view gives them a chance to experience a tiny fraction of what it is like in the real world … a tiny fraction that they would not have experienced otherwise.

    Street view is also a jogger of memories. I have used street view myself to remind me where I’ve been and to bring back fond memories of places I have enjoyed in my travels.

    • I suppose you’re right, now that I think on it: perhaps it will have the opposite effect from what I’m thinking and actually inspire people to go to those places. A good thought.

      I’ve not tried it yet as a jogger of memories. Perhaps I should…

  3. Nothing is better than the “real thing”! But, like you said, for a variety of reasons, people cannot make it to all the places that they wish to visit (heck, I think most of us prob. never make it to 1% of all the places we wish to visit!) so virtually reality is the next best. As long as we don’t use it as a crutch/excuse to avoid experiencing nature firsthand, I think we are okay.

    • I definitely agree. Sometimes I think technology gives us too many crutches and excuses as it is!

  4. I found it pretty interesting. He hiked it in reverse from our rim-to-rim trip, but since I was there so recently it really brought a lot of memories back. If they put every trail online would I go look? Probably not. I’d rather go out and experience it for myself, and I wouldn’t want my first experience to be tainted by having seen it online already. But there’s probably places I’ll never go, and know that already and having the ability to go see from my desk what someone is talking about is nice.

  5. Ugh that camera equipment looks heavy!
    It doesn’t really matter what is put online vs. what is seen in person. I love looking at beautiful online images but there’s no comparison to the the full experience of the actual place. You can’t put the sights, smells, and air around you in a picture. 🙂 But if you’re never going to see the sights yourself, the pictures are super nice.

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