Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Meet the Google trekker photographing Indian monuments


Early on a cold February morning, Nishant Nair is walking inside the Taj Mahal complex in Agra. The monument is not yet open to the public. Light fog is still in air, floating over the Yamuna behind the Taj. The sun is yet to cast its light on the world famous white dome.

Nair is on a special mission. With permission from Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) he is using a 4-feet-high backpack, which weighs around 18 kilograms, to click thousands of images of the Taj so that Google can create a virtual replica of the world famous monument.

Beginning in 2013
Nair is part of the Google team that is photographing 100 monuments in India. The Qutub Minar, which was photographed in October 2013, was first. The project, launched by Google in collaboration with ASI, is an attempt to put India's biggest historical sites on the web. Google is photographing the notable sites across the world for the last few years. It has photographed Burj Khalifa, Eiffel Tower, Mt Everest and several other sites.

Suren Ruhela, geo product manager for Google India, told TOI that when Google approached ASI in the middle of 2013 with a proposal to photograph historic sites, the response was rather muted.

Google kicked off its Street View project in India in 2011. It put the special cars, which have the cameras mounted on top of them, to photograph streets, on the roads in Bangalore. But within days, the Bangalore police asked the company to stop the photography. Cops cited "security concerns" even though the permission for the photography had been granted. Google and Indian government then again started talks on the Street View. Those talks are yet to reach a logical end.
Given this background, the ASI officials approached the monument project cautiously. "But we showed them how we have photographed the sites in other countries and how those virtual monuments have allowed many more people to access them, even if only on the web. After a while ASI officials started warming up to the idea," said Ruhela.

"As we talked more, we found ASI officials enthusiastic about putting India's best monuments online so that people from across the world can access them easily. Photographing a monument and creating its virtual image is a great way to preserve the culture of the country," added Ruhela.

Creating a picture-perfect and accurate imagery of a monument is no easy feat. Google knows that and has created a tool specifically build to do one thing - photographing a monument in a way that captures a 360-degree view.

Google started taking photos of streets in 2007 with cameras mounted on cars. The project kicked off in the US. But as the company rolled out the Street View programme across the world and improved the technology used in cameras, it added several other types of vehicles in the mix. The cameras were fitted on bikes, cycles and other vehicles. With Street View proving to be popular with web users, Google employees started exploring how the technology can be used for other services.

In 2010, Amit Sood, who is currently director of the Google Cultural Institute, came up with the idea of photographing museums with Street View. He used his "20% time" - at Google employees can use 20% of their working time to explore projects that personally interest them - to give shape to the plan to photograph museums.

Museums were just a beginning. The program was later expanded to historical sites and places like Grand Canyons, where the Street View cars cannot go. But to enable photography in tight spots, Google redesigned the camera used on the Street View cars and created the trekker - a 18kg backpack made up of metal, plastic and cloth that a Google employee or a volunteer can wear and roam around a place to create virtual imagery.