Spin the globe at the bottom of the screen and take a journey on the Rhaetian Railway through the Swiss Alps. Or perhaps you’d prefer to explore the mosaics of Pompeii in Italy. Or gaze upon the nine-story Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain. Or track down the Aboriginal rock art at Kakadu National Park in Australia. Maybe all of the above.
No longer restricted to asphalt and storefronts, Google Street View has gone off-roading to bring some of the world’s most impressive monuments and parks to the Web. Launched at the end of May in Madrid, the World Wonders Project is the latest creation from the Paris-based Google Cultural Institute, a wing of the company that aims to spread culture and history to users around the globe.
To document 132 heritage sites worldwide, the Google team has partnered with content providers such as UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund, and Getty Images to meld several technologies in six languages—English, Spanish, French, Japanese, Hebrew, and Italian—into one geohistorical platform. The site is also geared toward educators, as both students and teachers can download free lesson plans and presentations.
To scan the nooks of Nijo Castle in Kyoto and traverse the grounds of Stonehenge, Google had to ditch its typical car-mounted scanners, said Street View guru and World Wonders chief engineer Luc Vincent. Instead it created image-capture equipment suitable for “beefed up” tricycles and vertical trolleys that can be pushed around to capture indoor sites. These trikes globe-trotted for a whole year, sailing down the Amazon River and sitting atop the Glacier Express train in Switzerland.
At the moment, the majority of the World Wonders sites are in Europe, North America, and Japan—largely because they were easier to access, said Steve Crossan, the head of the Google Cultural Institute. South America is represented by only three Brazilian sites, and mainland Asia boasts just two sites, both in Israel. Africa is empty. But the launch is only the beginning, and Crossan said that his teams will be adding more sites as soon as they receive permission to scan them.
Navigating the gardens of Versailles, however, is a snap. Visitors can read UNESCO’s descriptions, watch YouTube videos about the palace and its history, and scroll through photographs via Panoramio, a service that tags photos to Google maps. There is also an option, via a Google Earth plug-in, to tour a 3-D model of Versailles—unlike the Street View technology, this excursion can take users along the 17th-century rooftops. Versailles is also well-known for its art collection, and users can enter the palace via World Wonders and also examine high-resolution images of 35 paintings via a link to the Google Art Project.
The Google Cultural Institute launched the Art Project early last year with 17 museums and about 1,000 works of art. In April, the updated version contained 32,000 artworks from 155 museums. The institute has also digitized Nelson Mandela’s archives, the Dead Sea scrolls, and documents and photos from the Yad Vashem center for Holocaust research.
“We’re making places accessible to people who are not able to visit them,” Crossan said. Google finances all of the projects, he added, and no money changes hands with partners or museums. Nor will the platform feature any advertisements or pop-up windows for travel agencies.
When asked whether a detailed, interactive travel experience will dissuade people from actually packing their bags and traveling, the Google team issued an emphatic no. “In some cases, sites have been reluctant [to participate] because they fear that if it’s online, people will stop going to visit, but actually the opposite happens,” Vincent said. “At Pompeii, one of the first sights we used the tricycle at, the Italian authorities told us that after we launched on Street View, visitors increased by 30 percent. The technology shows that there are beautiful places to be seen, and people are more likely to go.”