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Exploring The World's Highest Peaks From Your Couch

Have you ever wanted to see the view from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania? Google is making that possible — sending employees up the world's highest peaks with digital cameras, tripods and fisheye lenses to take photos that can be stitched together for a 360 degree view.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

But we're wondering if you'd ever dreamed of seeking the view from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Now you can, in a way, anyway. Google is sending its employees up to the world's highest peaks with digital cameras, tripods and fisheye lenses. There they take photos that can be stitched together for a 360-degree view from the top of the mountains. You can't follow their exact path, but you can see the photos all along the way. So far, they've got four of the highest summits - of the seven highest summits, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina and their base camp at Everest.

We're gonna talk to someone who actually made a couple of those tracks, but we want to hear from you. Had seen something cool on a map ever lead you to change your planned route? 1-800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org and you can also join the conversation from our website. Go to npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining in now is Andrew Swerdlow. He's a privacy engineering manager at Google, and he's been working with a team of people to photograph the world's highest peaks for Google Maps. He's been to Everest and Kilimanjaro, but he's not there now. He's at our bureau in New York. Welcome.

ANDREW SWERDLOW: Hello. Hi, Celeste.

HEADLEE: So where did this idea come from? I can understand street view. You got to get to the grocery store and movie theaters, right, but Kilimanjaro?

SWERDLOW: Sure. So you know, there was a lot of planning that went into this. In general, I just want to point out that all of us on the expeditions did this in our vacation time. So Google didn't actually send us to capture these images. This was all done on our vacation time, because we're a group of passionate people who really wanted to improve the quality of Google Maps and make them more usable, make them more accurate and make them more comprehensive. And what's more comprehensive than shots from the top of Kilimanjaro.

HEADLEE: So let me understand what you're saying, Andrew, here. You guys took vacation time. You coordinated it, you went up there, you took these pictures, then you took them back to work and said, hey, we want to add these to Google Maps?

TRACY THOMPSON: That's exactly it. So this was all in our vacation time and, you know, we really wanted to do this because we were passionate about not just climbing mountains and things like that, but also sharing our experiences with the rest of the world. I have a sister who's in Toronto. And when we were kids, we always talked about wanting to go and climb Everest and do that. And you know, life goes on and we get jobs. And she has a small child right now and wasn't able to come on this trip. But I showed her some early photos when we first got back from Everest, and she was really blown away by my, sort of, just regular photos. And then when I sent her to the street view galleries, she was just, you know, she was just shocked and really, really liked it. So she felt...

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about that difference here, Andrew, because you know, I've seen pictures that people have taken from the top of Everest or Kilimanjaro.

SWERDLOW: Yes.

HEADLEE: What makes this different in terms of my viewing? What do I learn from seeing these pictures that I don't - from the ones I've seen before?

SWERDLOW: Right. Well, I think that, you know, one of the key things here is with street view, you can really tell a story. So you can go to the space, like Namche Bazaar or the monastery, and you can actually go and point and click and zoom around the different spaces. Now we weren't able to capture the entire route, everyday, of the expedition, but we were able to do is take these highlights and when you go to the street view galleries, you can actually feel like you're there. You can go in different directions. You can look up. You can look down. And that's a really, sort of, immersive comprehensive experience.

HEADLEE: To what end - what are you're hoping happens? Do - are you hoping it changes people's behavior or is it just suppose to be something cool to look at?

SWERDLOW: Well, I think that, you know, one of the key things here is that we really want Google Maps to be, you know, highly accurate, super comprehensive. And this Kilimanjaro, Everest, Aconcagua, this is just a piece of what's really happening as well. We have other groups that have been to the rainforest in the Amazon, to Antarctic and have done similar types of things. And so, you know, these places exist and people want to see them, and we felt like we could do a good job at providing a very accurate experience for them.

HEADLEE: And at least you don't have any privacy concerns up on the top of Everest, right?

SWERDLOW: Well, actually, you know, we do, you know, there were other people on the mountain as well and so, you know, we take privacy very seriously.

And especially with Street View, we do things like face-blurring to protect users. So...

HEADLEE: All right. So - we're speaking with Andrew Swerdlow. He's a privacy engineering manager, which is why he's particularly equipped to answer the last question, at Google. He went to Everest and Kilimanjaro, took pictures that's now part of Google Maps, and he's joining us from our bureau in New York. Our question to you out there listening, though, is have you ever seen something cool on a map - any map, doesn't have to be Google - that's led you to change your planned route?

The number is 800-989-8255. And right now we have Kevin in Buffalo, New York. What about you, Kevin, have you seen something on a map that made you deviate from your course?

KEVIN: Every time I look at a map it's likely that I'm going to see something that I find interesting. And as I was mentioning to your producer, I'll just look at a map, where are we going? OK, let's go off a little - there's a park there. Let's see that or there's something interesting over there. My son goes to school in Southern Ohio, and I live in Buffalo. And one of the things I saw in the map was, hey, that's the Ohio River, the river valley is not far out of my way.

So I was driving down alone to go visit him, and I said I'm just going to take a different route. I'm not going to go all the way to Cleveland and take the interstates. I'm going to head south at Ashtabula, pick up the Ohio River, drive down along the Ohio side of it before, you know, looking across at West Virginia just to see what it's like. I'm, you know...

HEADLEE: I get the sense, Kevin, that you often make a call and say I'm going to be a little late.

KEVIN: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KEVIN: I'll tell my wife, you know, I'm just going to go out and drive and get lost and find my way home.

SWERDLOW: Kevin is calling from Buffalo, New York. And we want to get your stories too of when you have deviated because of something you've seen on the map. Steven is calling from St. Louis, Missouri. Steven, have you ever seen something on a map that made you take a turn?

STEVEN: Well, yes, several times and most of - recently we took a three-week road trip and we - part of it was going to Florida. We were going to go to Disney World and to a wedding in Miami. But we were taking our time. We left with lots of time to get there, and we pretty much went from day to day, you know, where are we going to go tomorrow. And when we got close to Atlanta, the original plan was just like to spend the night there and then move on.

But when we got close, Google Maps' attraction said there was a museum of puppetry, which I had no idea existed even and no - certainly no intention when we left St. Louis of going to. And we ended up spending the whole day in Atlanta the next day, you know, after we spent the night there at the museum. We saw a puppet show. We toured the museum. It was a great time.

HEADLEE: That's Steven calling from St. Louis, Missouri. I wonder, for you, Andrew Swerdlow of Google, do you have this experience? I mean, it sounds like obviously you had to very carefully plan for Everest. But do you have this experience our listeners are talking about?

SWERDLOW: Oh, yeah. I can even give an example on Kilimanjaro. So we were looking at the maps just before we were about to do our summit for Kilimanjaro and, you know, one of the guides had pointed out an alternate route. And so, you know, this seemed really interesting to us. They call it the Western Breach; it's a more complex, complicated route to do. But you know, sort of having that awareness of what the different, you know, what could be around a different corner really excited us, and we were able to sort of adjust our plans before going. And that turned out to be a really amazing experience.

So although we didn't use Google Maps to identify that other option, I think just sort of having that knowledge is really powerful and can make good things happen.

HEADLEE: Well, I mean although you guys are talking - I mean you work for Google and we're talking about Google Maps, this issue is really about the beauty of a map, right? I mean it's about someone else venturing somewhere and then allowing other people thereby to have access to that thing and encouraging them to explore, in a way.

SWERDLOW: That's right.

HEADLEE: We have this email here from Sharon in Roanoke, Virginia, who says: My husband and I drove our vintage '73 GMC motor home from Virginia to California last summer - brave, Sharon - driving mostly on the old highways. We took a detour to go through Garden City, Kansas when the map said it had the world's largest hairball. It was pretty amazing. I'm not sure I'd deviate for the largest hairball in the country, but I imagine it's interesting.

We want to know what kind of deviation from course you have taken. Give us your stories of looking on a map and changing course at 800-989-8255. But Google Maps - and you guys have gone - you have a Google Street View of the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef and in Antarctica. Is there a chance that someone could say, well, look at it on Google Maps and say well, I've seen the Grand Canyon, I don't need to go?

SWERDLOW: Well, you know, that's an interesting question. I think there are two ways to look at this. One is supposedly you've been to the Grand Canyon and you had just a great experience there and you wanted to remember that experience. Looking back, going through Google Street View, sort of really being in that immersive environment can bring back those great memories. So I think that's one type of benefit here. The other is when we were doing the Everest track, there was a lot of interesting natural phenomenon happening.

There was earthquakes. There were crazy storms, bridges washed out, rock slides glaciers, you know, all these different types of things that were happening in the natural environment. And as we were going through, we were capturing all of this Street View imagery. We were thinking to ourselves, you know, this is amazing that we're able to capture this now because if we come back in a year, two years time from now, some of this stuff is going to be different and changed.

So being able to capture that piece of time has a lot of value. It has a lot of value from an environmental assessment type of opportunity as well, being able to see how the glaciers are moving, being able to see how the passer travel, things of this nature. So even if you've been there five, 10 years ago, going and taking a look at some of these collections, you might actually learn something new as well about how the environment is changing.

HEADLEE: Why can't we see the whole path of the mountain? What would it take for us to see every step?

SWERDLOW: That's actually a good question as well. So we used a really standard technology here. We used a standard Canon SLR camera with a fisheye lens and a regular tripod. And the Google Maps team, which have done a phenomenal job, have created this software called Business Photos Program. And it was designed for small businesses to be able to take pictures inside their stores and be able to upload that to Google Maps.

And so we were actually using that technology to capture these images, which does take a lot of time. And so, you know, we weren't able to do the entire route. I'd also point out that when you're trying to take these photos at 19,000 feet, in the cold with altitude sickness, your hands are shaky, you have to take off your gloves. And it's a really hard experience to do so.

HEADLEE: Oh, excuses, excuses, Andrew, just because you climb (unintelligible).

SWERDLOW: Next time we'll do better.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Let's take a call now from George in San Jose, California. George, have you deviated from your course based on what you've in a map?

GEORGE: Yes, I made a deviation. I was driving from Sacramento to Reno, and the main road is Interstate 80, which is a eight-lane superhighway where the traffic that goes about 70 miles an hour. And I didn't want to go that fast. I wanted to enjoy the view. And I - so I stop at the town called Forestville. I looked at the map and there was a little kind of a dotted line on the map that showed a way, a parallel to Interstate 80, to the right there. So I decided, oh, I'll take that. I was in the 1978 VW Rabbit. It turned out it was a jeep road, and I had to stop several times to cross streams...

HEADLEE: Oh, boy.

GEORGE: ...move rocks out of the way, I had to move some tree branches, but eventually I made it.

HEADLEE: Yeah. That's something you will never forget either.

GEORGE: I'll never forget, and that was a very enjoyable ride, too.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Thanks so much for that call. It's George calling from California. So what's next? I mean, maybe you won't go, Andrew, but what's the next place where we need to get a 360 degree view?

SWERDLOW: Well, first off, I've run out of vacation times so I probably won't be doing it more, these trips for a little while. But, you know, Google - and the Maps came in specific - really, you know, is pushing towards making their maps accessible and discoverable. And this is - everything from the highest peaks of Everest to the London museums. So, you know, I would say that, as long as there are people with passion that, you know, nothing is off limit. I know that one of my colleagues had even talked about, you know, hopefully going to the moon and, you know, doing some street view on the moon as well. So we'll see if that happens.

HEADLEE: Wow. Absolutely. I imagine there's a few who'd volunteer for that trip. Let's take one more caller. We have a couple minutes here, Alice. You're calling from the Big Island in Hawaii. What - when have you deviated from your course?

ALICE: Well, I was traveling in the late '70s in the Philippines and everybody had said go to the north, it's safe. You know, that was right after Marcos. And I was in the airlines office looking at their map, and I saw this name, Zamboanga. And it was a name of a town on the southern islands. And everyone said, don't go to the south, it's dangerous. But I had to go just because of the name, Zamboanga.

And we arrived in the night, and when I woke up in the morning, we were on the harbor, and it was full of what looked like black pirate ships. It really looked like out of "Pirates of the Caribbean" though that wasn't made then. And it was the most wonderful trip, the best people we saw, things never saw anywhere out in the Philippines.

HEADLEE: And it's all because you picked it based on the name Zamboanga?

(LAUGHTER)

ALICE: Zamboanga. Wonderful.

HEADLEE: That's Alice - yeah - who lives on the Big Island on Hawaii. So she already lives around some pretty long names. OK. So, Andrew, if you have - if you were the in charge of travel at Google - I'm going to try to put this question to another way. If you could send a team to go get a 360 degree view of something, now, where would you send them?

SWERDLOW: That's a great question. You know, there's so many places in the world that, you know, I'd love to be on an expedition or I'd love to see the footage back from. As far as the - as far as sort of - for this collection here, I think completing the rest of the seven summits would be a great challenge. So that includes mountains in Papua New Guinea, back to the Antarctic, and also North America as well.

So there are definitely some targets that - if there are willing Googlers to go and spend some vacation time and do that, then, you know, would be awesome.

HEADLEE: I'm saying go get a waterproof camera and give me the Great Barrier Reef. How about that, Andrew?

SWERDLOW: Let's go together.

HEADLEE: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Andrew Swerdlow is a privacy engineering manager at Google. He's been photographing the world's highest peaks, went to two of them, right? Kilimanjaro and Everest?

SWERDLOW: That's correct.

HEADLEE: For Google Maps. And if someone wants to see the pictures, they go to Google Maps and put in Mount Everest?

SWERDLOW: Actually, if you just go to Google and type in street view gallery, you'll find all of the collections there.

HEADLEE: OK. Andrew spoke to us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for talking to us.

SWERDLOW: Thank you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: We're going to need wrap up some more - rack up some more vacation time, Andrew.

(LAUGHTER)

SWERDLOW: Thanks.

HEADLEE: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, we'll take a look at telling good science stories without stretching the truth. You can join us back here again on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Happy travels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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