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48-pound backpacks, 100 miles and an app: How Google maps the Philly ‘burbs (and the world)

You’ve used Google Street View before — you know, that tool on Google Maps where you can creep on where people live based on their address get acquainted with what a place might look like before you go there.

In order to get those images, Google deploys special cars outfitted with 360-degree cameras to drive through cities and backroads across the world, taking millions of images along the way in order to map in an interactive way.

But the Internet giant has taken its Street View technology off-road. By rejiggering its technology and outfitting it on a backpack instead of a car, Google is sending out volunteers across the world to create “street view” for places without streets.

Through its new “trekking” technology, Google is creating interactive maps for everywhere from the Taj Mahal to the mountains of Nepal to the Pyramids of Giza to the countryside of Bucks County outside Philly.

I took the trip out to the Tyler State Park near Newtown this week to meet with folks from Visit Bucks County who are serving as Google’s boots (and cameras) on the ground to map 13 different locations in Bucks County, each that require about 10 miles of trekking.

So far, the volunteers from the company have mapped five locations, including the state park and Washington Crossing Historic Park, AKA the place where George Washington crossed the Delaware River at one of the major turning points of the Revolutionary War. They even walked the massive trekking gear to the top of Bowman’s Hill Tower, a 125-foot-tall tower in Bucks County built to commemorate Washington and his army.

This week, the trekking gear was being manned by Paul Bencivengo, vice president at Visit Bucks County, who was hauling the 48-pound backpack about 10 miles through the state park. (I will vouch for him: I tried on the backpack, and it’s so heavy that I actually started to fall backwards when I put it on. Not for the faint of… back strength.)

“This really falls under ‘other duties as assigned,'” Bencivengo said.

How it works

The equipment, which includes a power pack, 15 cameras facing in different directions and a heavy duty backpack, was shipped to the people at Visit Bucks County several weeks back, and users of the system went through online training to learn about the technical aspects of the apparatus.

While he’s trekking, Bencivengo carries two phones with him. In one hand, he’s holding the Google Trekking app which he uses to start and pause the cameras — a feature that comes in handy because trekkers can’t go over the same place twice with the 360-degree cameras, so some pausing and re-starting is necessary during the walks.

In the other hand, he’s holding a second iPhone with the Map My Walk app running so he can track where he’s at (and occasionally check his email). Walking about 25 to 50 feet behind him throughout the trek is Visit Bucks County Marketing Director Heather Walter, who has a paper map of the area and crosses out which paths they’ve already crossed over.

As Bencivengo walks at a leisurely pace (about a 23-minute mile), ducking beneath tree branches and low-hanging flora, the cameras take thousands of panoramic images of the area and save them in the hard drive of the machine. Trekkers can’t get previews of what the photos look like during the trek, other than to simply see that a photo is being taken.

Once the trek is over, the hard drive is labeled and shipped back to Google where they’ll overlay them with GPS information so they can be used by consumers. Bucks County officials have the machine until June 12, and hope images will be available for use on Google by the fall.

Why Bucks County

Visit Bucks County actually filled out an application about six months ago to take part in the loaner program which partners with recognized tourism boards, non-profits and research organizations.

Google Maps introduced the Trekker Loan Program in the summer of 2012. Bencivengo said trekking operations from Michigan, Hawaii and Florida have already been posted online, but he hasn’t been able to locate any others in Pennsylvania using the technology.
“We’re a smaller destination, but we want to be at the cutting edge in whatever type of technology,” he said. “And they loved that we’re a countryside destination.”
Visit Bucks County — the only group in Pennsylvania to take part in the program —  has already trekked through five locations, and hope to finish all 13 of these by the end of their time with the machine:
  • Bowman’s Hill Tower – complete
  • Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve – complete
  • Tyler State Park – complete
  • Washington Crossing Historic Park – complete
  • Shady Brook Farm – complete
  • Peace Valley Lavender Farm
  • Core Creek Park
  • Ringing Rocks Park
  • Sand Castle Winery
  • Nockamixon State Park
  • Peace Valley Park
  • Neshaminy State Park
  • Delaware Canal

Bencivengo estimates he’s already lugged the machine around about 50 miles, and plans to trek dozens more. While Visit Bucks County’s costs incurred were minimal and included only small fees to the state so they could use land for commercial use, the tourism board has put in countless hours to assist Google.

“We’re providing visitors with a vast online experience,” he said, “even for people that can’t come to Bucks County but are learning about places like Bowman’s Tower. They can go online and experience those things, and this is the expectation of the consumer in 2015.”

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