Google captures heritage in Street View and Cultural Institute

  • TECH
  • Monday, 07 Apr 2014

One of the first things you'll notice about Siem Reap in Cambodia, even before the majesty that is the UNESCO world heritage site that is Angkor Wat, is that it's bloody hot.

Temperatures hover around 35° -36° Celsius but the humidity feels much higher than in this country, resulting in this reporter looking like he just came out of a wet T-shirt contest for unattractive people.

The humidity and heat doesn't just affect the visiting foreign journalist, but also the various locals who are there to showcase the various camera rigs that are being used to capture Street Views of the temples in the Angkor area.

Like the extensive Street Views that are available in Google Maps in various metropolitan cities, the street view images of Angkor's many temples allow the user to "walk" down paths and into the temples themselves to get a 360° virtual tour of the area.

These views are captured using a variety of equipment, including the Google Street View vehicles with cameras mounted on the top for areas with roads as well as a backpack-mounted camera called a Trekker for areas inaccessible to vehicles.

The Google Street View vehicle is used where road access is available

The 18kg Trekker backpacks are carried by locals who are tasked with walking down the paths and the inner temple courtyards of the Angkor area to capture the views.

One can only imagine what an undertaking this is, since there are 90,000 of these 360° Street View images covering over 100 temples in the Angkor area over some 400 sqkm (which is a little over half the size of Singapore).

According to Manik Gupta, group product manager for Google Maps, the backpacks last for six to eight hours and takes images every 2.5 seconds.

"Even after the images are captured, there is still work to be done to stitch them into a seamless whole, including compensating for a human's natural swinging motion as they walk," added Manik.

Many of these images allow the user to zoom right in to take a closer look at wall carvings and other interesting details of the temples.

The images are part of a long term Google project to not just capture Street Views of cities, but also popular tourist spots and UNESCO world heritage sites around the world, giving users a taste of the art and culture of different countries for those that can't afford to or don't have the opportunity to visit those places themselves, said Manik.

The project started in July 2013 with the cooperation of the government of Cambodia and the APSARA Authority, the body that is responsible for the management and protection of the Angkor's temples and heritage sites.

While Google won't get into specifics about the cost of the project or how many Google Street View vehicles and Trekker backpacks were used, Manik did say that all expenses for the project were borne by Google, which includes not just the cost of hardware and logistics, but the hiring of locals for carrying the Trekker backpacks.

Amit Sood, the director of the Google Cultural Institute is enthusiastic about digitising artworks from around the world

Google Cultural Institute

However, Street View itself is only part of a larger project for the company, which also established the Google Cultural Institute, a virtual site that uses the same idea as Street View, but applying it to virtual tours of museums and artwork.

Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute, is extremely enthusiastic about the project.

"The cool thing about this is that it gives you access to places you normally wouldn't be able to access if you were a regular visitor, such as the costume room of the Paris opera house," he added.

Amit went on to say that the virtual tours allow you to zoom in to pieces of artwork and get a really close look at them.

"When I mean close, I mean right down to the brushstroke level -- if you visited the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, for example, you have to see it from behind a barrier which is pretty far away," said Amit.

Using Gigapixel technology, anyone with a web browser can instead zoom right in to the painting or artwork and appreciate the detail on a more micro level.

These images are captured in various resolutions, and can be as large as 10bill Gigapixels, using giant camera rigs that are installed during the musuems' off hours and takes 6-12hours to capture.

"We usually do it at night also because there are less vibrations that could affect the quality of the final image," said Amit.

Gigapixel images allow visitors to the Google Cultural Institute to zoom in to the brushstroke level of many paintings

Amit went on to demonstrate how zooming into to the Gigapixel image of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting, The Harvesters, gives the viewer a whole new perspective on the painting.

"If you zoom in to the top middle section of the painting, you'll notice near the top here a small group of people playing some kind of game.

It turns out that they're playing a traditional game where children beat an animal with a stick. Without zooming right in to the image you wouldn't be able to see this at all as it's such a small part of the painting," he said.

Amit explained that unlike Europe, which has a wealth of paintings, in Asia art is expressed in the form of textiles and carvings and using Google's Gigapixel technology, users will be able to zoom in right into the fibres of textiles or right up to tiny cracks and imperfections in carvings.

The Google Cultural Institute project started in 2011 with the intention to capture virtual tours of museums and other non-profit institutions.

Today, the initial 17 museums have grown to a whopping 459 in over 150 countries and still growing.  

Apart from offering virtual tours to visitors, the project also allows curators of these museums to  also create tours of their own with video and custom layouts to supplement the high-resolution images.

Despite the availability of these resources online, both Manik and Amit point out that these resources are meant as a supplement to the experience of going there yourself or as a tool to more effectively plan your trip.

"For example, with Angkor, we have Street Views of over 100 sites -- if you visited Angkor yourself, you wouldn't be able to fit all 100 sites into your tour. This way you can look at those other sites and perhaps whet your appetite to come back for more," Amit said.

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