This is Google Earth, but at street level, with every fag butt, discarded kebab and pool of vomit on show to the world, as well as a
few less savoury things. How this service will be of much real
use is notimmediately apparent when you log on, but it's certainly
rather good fun.
Available in nine countries worldwide, the online service was first launched for the US in 2007. You can type an address or postcode into Google Maps and find a static photograph of it, or you can drag a little wobbly orange icon called 'Pegman' (he looks like a clothes peg) across the map and drop him wherever you like (as long as the street is highlighted blue).
An image of the area will pop up and you can then use arrows to rotate it. If you're using Google Maps to plan a journey, your route will be accompanied by moveable images to ensure you don't get lost.
Like most first-time Street View Googlers, I initially search for my own flat, swivelling the view to see the regulars outside the pub across the road enjoying a sly fag. These innocuous locations prove more fun than a city's recognisable landmarks – which might as well be virtual postcards – although busy streets such as Byres Road in Glasgow or the Royal Mile in Edinburgh prove fun for virtual people-watching (is that an argument we spot outside Rawalpindi's Indian restaurant on Sauchiehall Street?)
The voyeuristic element proves one of the most entertaining uses of Street View. I search all my haunts to try to spot my virtual self, and friends' houses, finding that I can just about see into the window of one acquaintance's living room.
This aspect does, of course, raise the very real concern about breach of privacy. Last year, Google was investigated by the Information Commissioner's Office over the plans, but was eventually given the go-ahead for the project. Street View uses special technology to blur registration plates and faces (resulting in some cases in the blurring of the faces of statues or horses) and users can flag up images for removal by clicking on a 'Report a concern' link.
Google argues that the level of detail shown is the same as that you would see driving down a road (hence the reason 10 Downing Street is not visible).
While critics argue that the service could be used to plan crimes, Google UK's new head, Matt Brittin, said that in discussions with the Metropolitan police, they found that the service helps to track and monitor crime. Indeed, on one occasion police in the US used Street View to find the location of a kidnapped child.
However, some campaigners claim that it violates our right to privacy. "These images are being captured without people's permission for commercial use and we believe that it is not legally acceptable," Simon Davies of Privacy International told a reporter yesterday. "They are also putting into place a system for updating these images in the future, and for storing the images digitally where they could be misused."
So could a man put his home address into Street View only to spot his wife greeting the milkman in a rather-too-friendly manner? Could a boss search for their place of work and catch their employees at the back door having a sneaky cigarette? Certainly, Street View has inadvertantly caught people red-handed (albeit retrospectively) on more than one occasion.
The tens of millions of pictures were obtained last summer, when a fleet of Google cars nipped across the nation capturing images – which were later stitched together – on special 360-degree cameras that were mounted on their roofs. Difficult weather conditions held up the process in many cases: dry, overcast days proved most effective for getting clear pictures, but last summer those were few and far between.
So for what will we use Street View? Google suggests you might employ it to preview your holiday accommodation, show friends abroad where you live, check out local amenities if you're moving to a new area, or check out the level of wheelchair access a building or area has before you visit.
"Street View has been hugely popular with our users in Europe and worldwide; we're thrilled it's now available in the UK for so many great cities," says Google's geospatial technologist, Ed Parsons. "Google Maps and Google Earth have long been popular with British people and are used by governments, businesses and individuals as essential and informative tools every day of the week – (this] now adds a new dimension."
Street View has also teamed up with other organisations, including FindaProperty.com, which allows users to look at the local area before they view a property to rent or buy (a service that would certainly have saved me some time last year, when I wrote off a potential flat upon finding it was located opposite a suspicious-looking sauna) and Tate, who will offer art lovers links to locations that have inspired paintings in their galleries.
All practical uses certainly, but Street View is also – quite simply – an addictive resource. Once you get the hang of it, you can zip around a city, exploring less familiar areas from the comfort of your desk and getting excited when you spot all your favourite places. (Some are more interesting than others of course – there's something rather sinister about sitting indoors on a sunny day, taking a virtual tour of the A199 in East Lothian.)
In countries where the service has been established for a while, spotting weird and wacky things on Street View has evolved into something of a sport.
From nudity to thieves escaping through windows and even a man dressed as a beehive, entire websites are now devoted to bizarre Street View sightings.
So with the service now up and running in Scotland, what strange Street View spots might we clock up? A Morningside Lady shoplifting a cream scone, perhaps? Naked sunbathing in Kelvingrove Park? Fred Goodwin nipping out to collect his pension? Log on to maps.google.co.uk to find out.
ORGANISERS said that London was the most difficult place to drive for Street View because of its many one-way streets and high buildings, and a lack of parking areas.
SOME areas are yet to be visible on Street View, owing to road works taking place when Google was in town. Edinburgh's Princes Street and George Street, for example, aren't yet available to view.
THE Google team covered 22,369 miles across 25 cities in the UK to launch the service in Britain.
ONE imaginative Google employee used Street View to propose to his girlfriend.
STREET View provides 360 horizontal and 290 vertical panoramic street-level views.
FOR pedestrian areas and narrow streets that cannot be accessed by car, Google Bikes are used instead.
THE ultimate aim, Google claims, is to eventually provide street views of the whole world.
IN order to protect their privacy, before the service was launched, Google removed photos of domestic-violence shelters.
THE Pentagon, right, has banned Google from publishing Street View content of US military bases.
A US couple sued Google unsuccessfully for invasion of privacy, stating that because their home was visible on Street View, its value was diminished because it had been chosen for its privacy.