Thursday, May 03, 2007 - connect users to their surroundings through online mapping

Shima posted a link to an interesting site from her blog today. This was something that was definitely up my alley, given my interests in Planning, GIS and technology in general.

VirtualCity, a company based in Toronto, has mapped out much of Toronto's major metropolitan areas through street-level photography, as well as implementing a business name search such that one can view their actual storefront, all without any software to download or install.

Built upon Google's mapping APIs, users can either use the built-in search functions to find a point of interest, or drag and drop a viewfinder on the map to begin “strolling” the city. Millions of photographs are seamlessly stitched together for each area, giving VirtualCity users the unique ability to virtually stroll through streets, viewing points of interest before they ever leave their computer. In addition, due to Google's mapping APIs, the site allows users to traverse maps traditionally and find detailed directions complete with time and mileage summaries in a relatively familiar interface.

VirtualCity’s photographs are collected via highly specialized mapping vehicles equipped with high-definition video cameras and the latest in global positioning technology. GIS-grade GPS, accelerometers to sense increases and decreases in acceleration, and gyro meters to sense directional changes, all tie into the vehicles’ computer bus to sense each full rotation of the wheels, while custom software compares these readings 10 times per second to create extremely accurate location data regardless of degraded GPS or "urban canyons". This is typically called "dead reckoning" by navigation systems. Over 4 million photographs were taken of the Toronto area.

I think this is an amazing way of integrating existing technology (GIS, GPS data collection, etc) and improving upon how data is presented to a user. Today, we are accustomed to seeing overhead satellite views on either Google Maps or Windows Live Local. That can be really useful, but it is street level views that people are likely more accustomed to via walking, biking, or of course, driving (unless of course you are an airplane/helicopter pilot).

VirtualCity's product is not exclusive to Toronto. By using geolocation, Toronto users are automatically sent to the Toronto site. However, VirtualCity is also available for those in Montreal. VirtualCity plans to expand into the United States before the end of the year, beginning with Miami and continuing into the New York, Chicago, and Boston markets in 2007.

A couple suggestions I would make to the developers of this product would be the following:

  1. Provide the date that the photographs were taken; and,
  2. Provide an archive of the photographs that were taken over time.

With disk storage space being so abundant, I don't see why this would be too hard to implement. I think that this would be an interesting way to show the evolution (or devolution) of the streetscape over time, and could become a great tool for planners to use.

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