Published September 10, 2010
Daniel Ratner, a senior mechnical engineer at Google, rides his invention, the Street View tricycle. (Courtesy of Google)
There’s something kind of creepy about a Google Street View car driving down your block and snapping pictures of your house. Citing privacy concerns, some communities have tried to ban the nosy vehicles. Consider this Times of London story: Village mob thwarts Google Street View car.
But put a 360-degree camera on a tricycle, and suddenly it’s… charming.
“A lot of people right away go, Oh, wow, Google Street View, that’s how you guys do it? Wow, how cool, can I ride it?”
Daniel Ratner, a senior mechanical engineer at Google, invented the Street View tricycle to cover the places a car can’t reach. He has pedaled through Legoland California, LA’s Third Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier.
“Very, very often we get asked if we have ice cream,” he told me. “All the time. Really, all the time. Poeple ask, adults and kids ask if we happen to have ice cream.” (They don’t.)
At the moment, this is the closest you can get to Faneuil Hall on Google Street View.
Today, by popular demand, the trike comes to Faneuil Hall Marketplace. (Street view can get you nearby, but not really inside the promenade.)
A few months ago, the company announced that some 20,000 Internet users voted for the trike to visit the marketplace over the Navy Pier in Chicago or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
Imagine: Anyone, anywhere will be able to peruse the chowdah stands and merchandise shops once frequented by our founding fathers.
(A note to the privacy-sensitive: Faneuil Hall invited the trike cam. And Google’s face-blurring algorithm will work there, too.)
Ratner doesn’t ride the Google trike anymore — the company hires “drivers” for that — but he has fond memories of his heavy and awkward invention.
“I don’t know know if you’ve ever been on a trike of any kind, but they are goofy,” he said. “On, bikes whether we know it or not, when you go to turn you lean. … When you’re on a trike you can’t lean.” Once his brain adapted, Ratner said, he was flying up mountain bike trails.
Only a Google snowmobile could capture this.
Ratner seems to embody his company’s desire to capture and share everything. His other invention, by the way, is a Street View snowmobile. He is proud of the stunning imagery at Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler, British Columbia. (The little stick man wears skis!) His team hopes to capture the South Pole.
Of course, that voyeuristic ambition gets Google in trouble. Today the Boston Herald interviews a Newton lawyer who is suing the company for collecting private data from home Wi-Fi networks with its Street View cars. The lawyer says it’s “galling” for Google to be rolling into Boston again.
But Ratner is a nerd, not a policy guy. He invents stuff. I asked him for details of his next top-secret project.
“I hope you get back in touch with us in the coming months,” he said.
I offered to go off the record.
“Please come back and talk to us in, like, six months.”
Update: I talked about this on Radio Boston, and intern Huw Roberts put together a great slideshow!