Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ruminations on Place

Sunday, I was on a panel with Steve Chase, Hurricane Chase, and Murata Takehiko at the Yahoo! Japan Geolocation Conference (#geoconf). Yahoo! Japan (a distinct entity from Yahoo! Inc. btw), put on an excellent conference, and had announced that they would be contributing data to Open Street Map, in a similar fashion to Bing and MapQuest. There was a lot of excitement in the room, with many OSM participants present (by design I imagine). And there were inevitable questions about Google's future involvement in the project - something I'm interested in personally but can make no commitment to on behalf of Google of course. But more importantly, to this blog post at least, a question came up about whether Google would contribute Street View imagery to OSM, and whether there were any OSM related projects developing open versions of Street View. As a panelist, and someone who can't avoid talking, because I'm just that way, I had to answer of course. My answer went something like this, speaking as myself not foreshadowing a future Google product:

I don't think in the future, Google should have to be driving all the streets in the world. Ideally, we will move toward a time in which everyone is providing data about the world in open formats, in ways that are search-able and crawl-able. What makes Street View so compelling, I think, is that it gives us a sense of place, a sense of the essence, be being-ness of the location we're looking at. And in fact, in places where we don't drive cars, you can still see geolocated photos. Look at Moscow, for instance, with Pegman selected. There are photos all over. Ideally, this is something self-perpetuating, something people want to open up.

That got me to thinking, especially after reading Ed Parson's recent post about a 1930's video of Teddition. He, and the commenters, talks about what can be seen there, and what has stayed the same. Ed ends with this statement:

"We are lucky to have rare video like this for it’s completeness but at the same time it’s disappointing that for future generations Google Street View which could offer a similar resouce has had to be mutilated to accomodate privacy concerns."

Indeed, there is something we miss out on. I am not arguing for doing away with privacy, I'm just ruminating here on pictures and meaning. The word "place" has many meanings in English, but they are interrelated. The reason satellite imagery, and particularly street view imagery is so compelling is that it relates something that standard maps can't, a sense of the place or essence of a location. And that place-ness, that sense that is tied to location, time, people, trees, buildings, smell, sounds, all of that is incredibly powerful, and I think Street View is only starting to touch on what that means to people.

I've been in Japan this last week, and at two GTUG meetings, I did demonstrations of custom Street View. In particular, people were interested in this simple holiday greeting from Digitas. In it, the developers added some panoramas to their Street View application through the API, which of course anyone could do. The panoramas lead off street into the digitas office where employees hold up signs and there are thought and word bubbles around them. This conveys a sense of the place, a sense of celebration and fun and associates it with Digitas. I hope it really is that fun to work there, they seem like really nice folks in the picture!

The point I'm trying to make is that by this simple set of panoramas and a few lines of code, they were able to extend the sense of place that is the city around them, and change it to create a view of the place that is their company.

I know there are lots of academic writings on this subject, but frankly since 1994 I get bored when post-modernism or marxist dialectics get mentioned, so my forays into those studies have been unsuccessful at moving me. I read the works of China Meivelle, or Armistead Maupin instead, each of whom conveys vividly this sense of place

Today, like most days I have free in cities not my own, I walked. I walked around Kyoto. Not to find temples or castles, but to find that sense of place. I walked around, a lot, often going back over the same streets, visiting occasionally the same shops. I tried my extremely limited Japanese, and people graciously helped me out. I walked not just the big streets, but the small ones, gathering into myself my own impressions, my own sense of Kyoto-ness. Of course, this is very different from living here, what the place is like, and especially different from being a native. I tried to take pictures (posting them later) that captured this sense. How will technology solve this? Street View, satellite imagery, they are a start, but I believe augmented reality applications are going to be the best bet for capturing the "-ness" of a place. And I believe at some point, most of us will be involved in that capturing. The popularity of check-in applications, the rise of geotagged photos and videos, providing reviews, Foodspotting, and more are already starting it. It's only been 6 years since Google Earth and the Maps API came out, I wonder what we're going to see in another 6 years.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Hi Mano.

Reading this instantly brought to mind an exhibition Nichole and I recently went to in London (Michael Hoppen Gallery) featuring Sohei Nishino:

For his "Diorama Map" series he took thousands of photos of his subject cities and then arranged them on a map of that city. It is not (by design) meant to be 100% geographically accurate, but reflects and blends how the human mind stores a "mental map" through images. This is then massaged into the context of an actual map. The results are stunning. Sadly (for us) all of his prints of London were sold out before the Michael Hoppen exhibit even opened; and Tokyo (the other city we were interested in) had one remaining print for sale that was far beyond our budget.

These are truly amazing to look at. It would be interesting to see someone try to emulate this with a panoramio/maps hack where tiny image chips are overcrowded on the map and mouse-hovering makes them pop up/out.