Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: where will maps lead the travellers of tomorrow?

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay ponders how technology has radically reinvented maps © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Imagine a machine that could transport you from one side of the world to the other at the press of a button. One minute, you’re wandering amid the stupas of Borobudur, Java; the next, you’re exploring a grotto in Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine; later still, you’re following giant tortoises along a volcanic ridge in the Galapagos Islands. Alas, I haven't been to any of these places. But thanks to that magical machine – not one, come to think of it, but several: on my desk at work, in the study at home, in the pocket of my jeans even – I know they’re all just a moment away.

For that, I salute the ever-increasing richness of Street View, the offshoot of Google Maps that allows you to parachute Pegman – the little yellow icon in the corner of the map – into panoramic photos of the real world. In every sense, Street View has come a long, long way since Google co-founder Sergey Brin dreamed up the concept while playing with a camcorder in his car; it covered five US cities at launch, but its territory now encompasses all seven continents. Seven million miles and counting.

Pegman's progress

The name has become a misnomer. Street View doesn’t stop where the tarmac ends; far from it. It has taken to the air; it has plunged into the water. It has explored the Amazon by zip line, dived the Great Barrier Reef and even reached Antarctica – that final, frozen frontier of terrestrial adventure – to probe Shackleton’s Hut.

That's been possible thanks to the march of technology: cameras mounted on backpacks, trolleys, trikes and snowmobiles have joined the original fleet of cars, allowing Street View to conquer ever more challenging terrain. Its imagery now covers 65 of the world's countries, roughly a third of the total – so still plenty to go. And as you might expect, it concentrates on North and South America, Western Europe and Australia. But the ultimate goal? The world, of course.

Google won’t have to do it alone. Third parties can borrow a Trekker, the backpack-mounted version of the camera, for their own often laudable ends; for example, the charity Save The Elephants recently captured Kenya's Samburu National Park, bolstering efforts to conserve its wildlife. When you hear about projects like that, it’s clear that Street View reflects the company’s mission, which I’ll paraphrase as empowerment through access to information. And yet… I can’t help feeling ambivalent about the idea that the entire planet will be catalogued in the foreseeable future.

A man carrying a Google Trekker camera, one of the sources of Street View © Google Going off-road with the Google Trekker camera, one of the sources of Street View content © Google

Here be dragons

Long gone are the days when maps contained tantalising regions of terra incognita or mare incognitum. Cartographers filled in those blanks centuries ago; in this century, however, maps (and related technologies) will move into an altogether different realm. Indeed, a map in the dictionary sense of a diagram of the physical features of a place already seems rather quaint.

Street View is not a substitute for reality, lacking as it does any appeal to the sense of sound, smell, taste and touch. To borrow a once fashionable phrase, the map is still not the territory. For how long, though? The tide of technology is flowing fast in that direction as hardware finally catches up with the sci-fi promise of virtual reality.

Armchair travel redux

Earlier this year, the hotel chain Marriott ran a campaign allowing people to ‘visit’ Maui wearing a VR headset. The experience went beyond the visual, embracing other sensations such as the smell of sea spray drifting on a breeze. Travel agent Thomas Cook lets customers do something similar in its stores.

While Google and others innovate, a supporting cast in the travel industry dream up ways to exploit their inventions. Their interest aligns with Google’s argument that a virtual visit might inspire a real one – in other words, an opportunity for them to make money. You can say this is good for consumers, too; after all, isn’t a virtual visit the ultimate in try-before-you-buy?

For many people, Street View, virtual reality, and whatever technology builds on or supplants them, will provide the impetus for adventure. No question about it. But is it too fanciful to suggest that it might also signal the start of a different trend: the ‘traveller’ who, for reasons ranging from lack of opportunity to outright apathy, explores the world through technology alone?