For years now, Google Street View technology has helped the masses get a better glimpse of a destination. The 360-degree navigation has enabled anyone with Internet access to scout out unfamiliar locations by the comforting light of their computer screens. But now, Street View has become something of a destination in itself: With Google’s new World Wonders Project, over 130 heritage sites and historic works of architecture can be explored online with point-and-click ease.
Even before Google Street View was launched in 2007, the technological strides of Google Maps had dazzled users with the power of satellites. But Google Street View’s seamlessly stitched together panoramas disguise a much more complicated undertaking, one that necessitates custom-built cameras, a fleet of cars, tricycles (known as “trikes”), and even snowmobiles, and some old school ingenuity to collect enough visual data on the ground.
For the World Wonders Project, Google sent its camera-toting teams to historic locations around the world, generating easily accessible 360-degree views of guidebook favorites like Stonehenge and the Temple of Hercules, as well as architectural gems like the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Nijo Castle in Kyoto. While my virtual trip to Versailles left me yearning to explore the posh interiors after only being able to peruse the gardens, some sites, like the 1912 Antarctic explorers’ hut, actually allow users to step inside for a look. And though there is no entry fee for these virtual visits, the crowds at places like the Piazza del Duomo in Pisa are still there (as well as the occasional amorous couple).
The World Wonders Project comes over a year after the launch of the Google Art Project, another Street View-powered site that lets users navigate over 100 museums and galleries around the world and examine high-resolution images of famous artworks. Like the Art Project, the World Wonders Project champions the democratization of high culture, though it is not, nor does it pretend to be, a substitution for real life experience. But what it does show us without a doubt is that learning architectural history, as with art history, will be getting a lot more interesting.