Computerized Mapping

By Marc Weber
Founding Curator
Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum

Computer Mapping Technology and It's Origins

The History of Street View and How It Works

Choose any spot on a map and you can be transported with a computer click – immersed in the street point of view and able to move and zoom. Since 2007, Google Maps with Street View has transformed our ideas about going places, from faraway lands to a restaurant across town.

Computerized, interactive "movie maps" go back decades. Today's connected computer power has turned tools that were once the province of artists and visionaries into a part of everyday life.

Early Beginnings

In April 1906, filmmaker Earl Miles attached a movie camera to the front of a trolley in San Francisco and filmed all the way from mid-Market Street down to the Ferry Building. Less than a week later, the great earthquake and fire destroyed most of what the camera captured, and killed or made homeless many of the people who had stared curiously into its lens. The photographer's own offices on Market Street were destroyed and if the film hadn't been shipped off to New York the night before the quake it would have been too. Today, this footage can be viewed side-by-side with the contemporary street view.

Early street images and movies have long been thought of as routing tools. Map makers at Rand McNally photographed street views as early driving aids and in the 1970s California filmed all the state's main highways from a car-mounted camera.

Rand McNally Photo-Auto Map, 1907Rand McNally Photo-Auto Map, 1907
(Photo credit: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Gettysburg Cyclorama, which opened in 1913Gettysburg Cyclorama, Which Opened in 1913
(Photo credit: Gettysburg National Military Park

In these traditional photos, panoramas and movies, the viewer can only see a predetermined scene or route. MIT's 1978 Aspen Interactive Movie Map changed all that by adding computer control. This was a touchscreen controlled drive-through of Aspen, Colorado and the viewer was in charge of the tour going wherever he or she wished. The project pioneered basically all of the features of Street View and other mapping services today, including navigation buttons for turning and moving, integration with flat maps and aerial photography, computer-generated panoramas and 3D models of buildings.

Aspen Movie Map truck and movieAspen Movie Map Truck and Movie
(Photo credit: MIT Architecture Machine Group)

The MIT project was originally funded as a way to familiarize soldiers with remote locations or "surrogate travel". Inspired by the success of the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976, where commandos successfully freed hostages after practicing on a mockup of the real location. The technology was cutting-edge for the time. Nicholas Negroponte of the Architecture Machine Group at MIT (later the Media Lab) realized that the newly developed laserdisc player (which used shiny disks like giant DVDs) could do far more than play videos start to finish. By controlling it with a computer you could turn it into customizable multimedia, with endless links and branches chosen by the user. Selecting a building in the Movie Map worked like a modern Web link and let users get more information or even go inside.

Details of Making the Aspen Map Movie

Street View: How It's Done

To capture Aspen's streets, project leader Andrew Lippman and cinematographer Michael Naimark customized a set of stop-motion animation cameras on a car's roof to snap a full panorama roughly every 10 feet. Each shot was logged in a computer database. When the eventual user wanted to "move" a specific direction, the computer would call up the appropriate shot from the laserdisc player.

The Aspen Movie Map was ahead of its time. There were several efforts to start companies based on the technology and a brief flowering of 1990s interest in computerized panoramas using Apple's QuickTime VR ("Virtual Reality"). But street views remained mostly a niche product for art or the occasional display for tourists until the 2000s.

Then in 2003, Google co-founder Larry Page got intrigued with the idea of capturing street-level views on a massive scale. After shooting test footage with a video camera from his own car, he funded a project at Stanford University to develop techniques. The team experimented with high speed video cameras before settling on panoramic cameras like the early movie maps. The prototype van was filled with so much equipment that it required a separate generator.

By 2007, cheap computer power and storage had made street view services practical. Even more important, high-speed networking and the Internet made them accessible. Early interactive movie maps required expensive custom equipment and high capacity data disks for each stand-alone user. By the mid-2000s, millions of people could realize the once-exotic dream of "surrogate travel" through an ordinary Web browser.

Today, local drivers work as contractors to Google all over the world, some logging tens of thousands of miles. For special projects, the company uses trikes, snowmobiles, hand-pushed carts and even a backpack to map the paths and indoor spaces that cars can't reach. Google planes have also started filming 3D views from the air.

Early model street view van and camera turret.Early Model Street View Van and Camera Turret.
(Photo credit: Google Inc.

Street view uses laser rangefinding, GPS and image analysisStreet View Uses Laser Rangefinding, GPS and Image Analysis for Exact Positioning (Photo credit: Google Inc.)

The panoramic cameras take a set of pictures in every direction, usually every 9 to 15 feet. The cars also use laser rangefinding, GPS and image analysis to precisely determine the position of each picture and to later correlate it with Google Maps and Google Earth.

After the camera's hard disks are sent back to Google comes the hardest part: the processing, wasn't cost-effective on a large scale until recent years. Custom software automatically "stitches" the separate photos taken together into a single panorama and creates transitions between each set of pictures when you virtually move down the street.

Google street views in 2008 and 2011Google Street Views in 2008 and 2011 of a Street Corner in Sendai, Japan.

Street view maps have also been used as an important public record, from information for new zoning to helping rebuild more safely after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The Road Ahead

The first interactive movie maps go back more than three decades. What will the armchair traveler see 30 years from now?

Street views remain one of three very different ways of representing places: flat maps, three-dimensional models like those in games or Google Earth, and photographs of the world as it really appears. The three modes are converging. As 3D models get better, the artificial views they produce rival actual photographs and computer mapping street views onto three-dimensional models continues to improve.

People have long been fascinated with comparing the same scenes as they change over time, and computers can now automatically map photos to their place and viewing angles in the real world. So tomorrow's street views may not only give us "surrogate travel" in space, but also in time. Current street views are static, as if time had stopped. As video sources multiply, from CCTV to private smartphones, future services may bring in not only photos but live feeds from all over the world. These augmentations of reality promise to bring more and more computer-linked information to the real world as you walk through it.

Check out the Computer History Museum article and more videos here.

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