Virtual Exploration

Grand Canyon

If you have the urge to explore, but are unable to get outside, there are a variety of ways to explore spectacular places through your computer.  We often use Google Earth to research places we want to explore.  It provides an aerial view of anywhere on the earth. Google Maps also offers a Street View system that allows you to travel along many roads to check out the scenery.  More recently,  Google has adapted its Street View system and its Trekker Camera System to to allow virtual journeys along trails and very remote places around the world.  Google Calls these “Street View Treks” and you can come along.

Virtually Exploring the Grand Canyon

An early example is a Street View Trek of the Grand Canyon.  Google says:

“It took a team of 10 Googlers and 5 Trekkers about 3 full days to adequately capture the main trails of the Grand Canyon’s south rim. Two Trekker teams hiked down the Bright Angel Trail, camped overnight at Phantom Ranch, and then hiked out the next day along the South Kaibab Trail. Another three Trekker teams remained at the top of the Grand Canyon collecting imagery around the rim as well as the South Rim Trail. Our team also ventured out to collect imagery of Meteor Crater, just outside Grand Canyon National Park.”

After these teams collect a series of photos from the 15 lenses of the Trekker Camera taken at virtually every step along the way, the photos are assembled into tours.  At each photo point (or step, with these images), Google can assemble a 360° panorama.  Each of these panoramas are tied together by the path being followed.  Thus, at any point you can move up or down the trail a step at a time or as far as you can see on your screen.  You can also stop and look all around to see what there is to see.

You control the view with clicks and drags.  When your cursor is on or near the trail,  you will see a white oval indicating that if you click there you will move along the trail.  There are also white arrows that you can click to change directions.  If you move your cursor to the edge of the view, the panorama will start to slowly spin, so you can see all around.

Virtual vs Reality

Big Painted CaveWhen you are ready to move beyond the Grand Canyon, Google offers a great collection of U.S. Parks, Trails and Beaches for you to explore.  I decided to explore Lava Beds National Monument, a place I have been many times, to see how the virtual experience compared to reality.  Upon opening the Street View window for the Monument, I was presented with a rotating 360° panorama at the entrance to Big Painted Cave.   I could travel back and forth on the trail, but I found it bit awkward.  There are blurry places on some parts of the panorama and some nice pictures of the Trekker’s shadow on the trail.

How real is it?  Well, what you see is what you will see in reality, but the experience lacks the sounds and smells of reality.  The absence of time in the journey is a bit disconcerting as well.  Video is better in that it incorporates sight, sound and time, although smells are lacking.  Virtual reality is better in the sense that you can control what you see, unlike a video that can hide things that detract from the narrative.

I tried to virtually walk back to the trailhead parking lot,  but was left stranded  close to the trailhead.  I lost the ability to move in either direction on the trail.  After some messing around, and for reasons I can’t explain,  I was finally able to virtually walk to the parking lot.  That appeared to be the extent of the exploration one can do at Lava Beds National Monument with Google’s system.

Next I went to Google Maps and located the Monument.  I dragged the little yellow “Pegman” (at the lower right) onto the map to highlight the available Street Views and  could see that some of the roads were covered with Street View imagery.  I clicked on a side trail into Big Painted Cave  and that brought up a link to Street View.  I was able to virtually walk to the edge of the cave, but no exploration beyond that was possible.

Getting the Most From Virtual Exploration

Google’s system is very helpful if you want to  see what’s around at these places, but you will need to dig more to get a real feel for the sense of the place.  To get background and video, including video from off the trail and inside the cave at Lava Beds National Monument, you can study our story and watch the video, then get a sense of the rest of the area from Google’s trek.

You can explore any place that interests you by locating it on Google Maps then using the Pegman to discover the street View coverage.   Further research with Google searches will get you more background and the addition of YouTube and Vimeo videos can help fill out the virtual experience.

If you can get outside and explore these places,  please do.  If you can’t or if you want to know what you are getting into before you go, virtual exploration will be great help in your adventures.

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