(setting down the Street View Trekker) Well, shall we begin now?
Oh, we’re just starting now?
Yes. (laughs) Would you please introduce yourself Kawai-san?
Well, I’m Kawai from Google. I joined the company in 2007, so next year will be my seventh year. Soon after joining, my boss told me to make Google Maps. My first thought was, “What?! Maps?!” I was originally an engineer, and my idea of Google was searching, so I had only thought about work in that direction.
You were under orders to do work that was completely different from what you expected.
That’s right. But once I started, I found that maps are deep and very interesting.
You became involved with the project and then became enchanted with maps.
Yes. Within about three to four months, I got up to my neck in them. You can’t make a map without people moving around, and people need maps to move around. Isn’t that incredibly interesting?
People moving and maps go together.
Right. Most of Google’s services are complete within the confines of the Internet, but a map isn’t. It’s interesting how they form a connection for interplay between the Internet and the real world.
You never know. In that way that you experienced, Kawai-san, if someone reading this doesn’t find their work interesting and is negative about it, you could say, “If you stick with it, it might surprise you by turning out to be interesting.”
I truly believe that. After that, Google Maps spread around America and we started to talk about taking it overseas. I was in charge of Japan, but in 2011, when it came to spreading Street View to Europe and Africa, I returned to the head office in America and oversaw Street View for the whole world.
So a Japanese person is in charge of the Street View project that is now all over the world.
Yes – as it so happens. (laughs)
As far as you are aware, how did Street View begin? It would be hard enough just making maps, but you would have to start with nothing and hoof it everywhere to take photos of each location, which would require quite a lot of resolve.
Yes. But it didn’t begin with such grand ambition. Most of Google’s projects begin at the grassroots level – like, “It’ll be great if we could just do this…”
That’s just like with this software! (laughs)
Yeah! (laughs) Something different about Street View is how one day when Larry Page, co-founder and current CEO of Google, brought to work a video he had taken from the passenger seat of his car. He asked the staff if they could do something like that.
Oh… So that must have been the inspiration. The idea of organising data of landscapes around the world began right at home.
Well, the reason that got tacked on later was that you use maps from a horizontal perspective, so maps shouldn’t just be from above, and that it would be convenient to see them from the side as well. But actually, it began with the idea that it would be cool if you were able to photograph the total visible landscape for you to see.
But it wouldn’t be easy to seriously try to store up those landscapes from around the world.
Yes, it was really difficult. At first, we tried loading a big camera onto a van like a little truck, putting lots of computers on the racks, and using two large generators to operate equipment like a mini data centre. But we ran into all kinds of trouble, like smoke from the generators making the inside all smoky, and it was too heavy to move!
In the end, we gave up on this “the bigger, the better” approach and got rid of everything unnecessary, and installed a simple, normal car with commercial cameras and computers, and ran the minimum amount of equipment.
When you began Street View in Japan, what was it like? Japan would present a lot of problems that America wouldn’t, I suppose.
We began Street View for Japan in 2008, but the streets are narrow and crowded – there are a lot of circumstances that are specific to Japan – so we handle them as they come.
How did you photograph places too narrow for cars to go?
There are a few ways, but sometimes we use big tricycles called trikes. We load them with a camera, PC and generator, so they run along with a “vrrrr” sound like a portable street vendor stand. They aren’t power-assisted, so it’s pretty hard! (laughs)
A company known for its extreme brainwork is photographing all those locations by sweating it out the hard way!
(laughs) Places like Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine in Kyoto are steep and rugged, so I remember us having quite a devil of a time shooting them on a trike. But from now on, the Street View Trekker will play a role, so we can get even better images.
How do you photograph inside buildings?
It’s primitive, but we put a camera on a dolly. When a GPS13 won’t work, we measure distance by wheel revolutions like you use for a marathon course, and use the distance and radius to determine our position.13. GPS (global positioning system): A system that uses satellites to accurately determine your location on earth.
When we made the first prototype, the camera was too heavy and rattled around, making the photos blurry, so we increased the weight on the bottom to adjust the centre of gravity. Then it was too heavy to move! (laughs) We manage by jerry-rigging various solutions.
It’s surprising how you devise all sorts of methods, as if crawling along the ground. But through solving all those problems, you’re able to take all those photos.
Yeah, but seen from the inside, it’s surprisingly low-tech.
I’d like to ask something. How many people and vehicles are covering how much ground to make the maps for Japan? I guess someone may be able to figure it out by making a Fermi estimate14. (laughs)14. Fermi estimate: Using logical reasoning to quickly approximate a quantity that presents practical difficulties to actually investigate.
Um, we’ve still only done the main cities in Japan, so we’ve only done about half. And the city landscapes change rapidly, so it isn’t as simple as saying we need X number of vehicles to cover so many kilometres.
Oh, I see. As years pass, buildings and landscapes change, so it’s not simply a matter of saying you’ll need this amount of cars and it’ll take this amount of time.
The climate and seasons also come into play, so there’s no choice but to spend years on it. The major cities are already being updated while we work as hard as we can to cover the rest of Japan. Compared to other places, Kyoto may have the highest frequency of updates – because I love Kyoto! (laughs)
Thank you! (laughs)
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