Have You Lost Yourself in a Google Map Lately?

Here among the GeekFamily folks, I’m surrounded by techies on the pulse of the very latest developments in software, electronics, and what have you. Under a constant barrage of What’s New, sometimes you forget about awesome technologies that have been around for awhile. That’s why I want to remind you, today, of a program that has been around in some form for over a decade: Google Maps.

Yeah, I know. Specifically, though, I want to talk about satellite view and Street View. Yeah, I know. We’ve all Googled our house on the satellite and Street View. It was fun the first time, but it doesn’t change much. The Street View of my house was taken five years ago, before a tree fell on it and we had to get all new shingles and siding; the satellite pictures were taken earlier this year, showing a completely different color house (and a few fewer trees).

Personally, I always like to check out Street View while getting directions for a new place: I like to spot a few landmarks to look out for just before the turns. I have been known to take long virtual drives, just following a street to see where it leads—and this has helped me find my way home more than once while actually out driving on real streets. So I’ve always been a fan of Google Maps’ imagery features. It’s hardly a new discovery.

But the other week I was planning a library program on the theme of International Travel. I’d set up stations for each continent with books about or taking place on each, and give each visitor a “passport” booklet to record observations and collect stamps. I got the idea to set up computers at each station, with Street View tuned in on various tourists sites and unique features of each continent: I’d explored the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids at Teotihuacan this way before. Now I just had to find some good spots to bookmark on every continent.

That’s when I fell down the rabbit hole.

Before I go on, I need to clear something up about software. Sometimes, when I talk about the satellite imagery on Google Maps, I think of it as “Google Earth,” but these are actually two (mostly) separate programs. Google Earth is a program designed specifically to do what I’m suggesting: explore the world virtually through satellite and street view images. All the curriculum-building work is done for you—they’ve even started a series of interactive guided tours through the Voyager feature this year. One problem: my stupid slow computer just does not want to run Google Earth. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because it’s a separate program you need to launch, whereas Google Maps is just there, on a website, easy to open anywhere at short notice.

That’s why it’s especially exciting to realize all the exploration you can do just with Google Maps.

You don’t need to know the address. Just go into Maps and type in a famous landmark, like, say, the Taj Mahal. Choose the right one from the results (you may not know the address, but at least you can probably guess it’s the one in Agra, not the nightclub in a city near you), then click “Satellite” if the map isn’t already showing the satellite image, and voila! You’re hovering above the Taj Mahal. So now you click the yellow Pegman in the lower right. (Note: there IS no yellow Pegman on the mobile version of Maps. If you’re on a tablet, you may need to “request desktop site” in order to play like this!) It’ll say “browse Street View” when you do, and suddenly you’ll see a lot of blue marks all over the picture. The lines are official Google Street View, which you can travel along by clicking. Little blue dots indicate photo spheres, often taken by tourists or private photographers, where you can see all around in one spot. Click a spot of blue, and suddenly you’re hanging out on a balcony of the Taj Mahal, as you do.

You can find just about any tourist attraction in this way. Cities are going to have all the streets on street view, but interesting places far from major roads may have photo spheres, and sometimes walkways and interiors of tourist spots will get the full street view treatment, so you can walk right through. Surely you’ve heard that you can visit Diagon Alley on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. You can also wander through castles, temples, even an aquarium.

You can even climb Mount Everest, or go scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef:

I think my favorite spot to discover this time around was Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. I kept gasping every time I opened another photo sphere.

I found a lot of these interesting spots through great lists, like this “100 Grand Landmarks as Seen from Google Maps” article, or blogs dedicated to fun Street View sights, like Google Sightseeing. The latter found this great herd of elephants just chillin’ by the river off a lonely dirt road in Botswana. I had to share that one with one elephant-loving regular at story time.

But once you start exploring a location you found through a link, you can’t help poking around to see what else you can find. A town like Venice, Italy is so intriguing to stroll through—or, in many cases, gondola through—you don’t even need to focus on any particular landmark. I just clicked randomly on a Street View line in the middle of the main islands of Venice and this was what came up.

Have fun wandering down that alley! If you get hopelessly lost, just skip back a few pages! You don’t even have to speak Italian!

Or maybe you get sucked in because one location simply makes you think of another to look up. While wandering around Westminster Abbey, a pretty cool little visit in its own right, I naturally found myself brooding on the ideas of “London” and “Abbey,” and suddenly had to pop across town to see Abbey Road Studios, complete with iconic crosswalk.

That white gate on the left leads to Abbey Road Studios, as you’ll discover if you stroll (through clicking) down there. I never knew that’s where it was. I always pictured it being behind the camera, further away and going in the opposite direction. I learned a random Beatles fact through Google Maps!

It doesn’t matter that this is old news, that you technically already knew you could do this. I bet you needed the excuse to get virtually lost somewhere new on the globe for a while.

Besides, it probably is new for your kids. Virtual field trips abound. But judging by the attendees at my International Travel storytime, they’ll probably be entertained enough just Googling your house.