March 23, 2010

At a conference last month in Long Beach, Cailfornia, Blaise Aguera y Arcas, architect of Microsoft’s Bing Maps, demonstrated a host of exciting features for the mapping site, which hopes to use its more fluid zooming capabilities and a smorgasbord of new applications to compete with market leaders Mapquest and Google Maps.

Though many features of the new and improved Bing Maps seem to be improvements on what Google Maps already offers, its Streetside Photos application departs from the latter’s formula to such an extent that it warrants a reappraisal of not only where the field is headed in the future, but also the very purpose behind mapping sites to begin with.

On its surface, Streetside Photos is what its name suggests, an application providing photographic imagery from street-level.  What is impressive about this application, however, is that it uses Creative Commons licensed images from Flickr to populate its already augmented reality, meaning shutterbugs from all over the world are contributing to Streetside’s content whether they know it or not. 

Geotagged images have been uploaded to maps in the past, but this application breaks new ground by thoroughly integrating those photos with 3-D satellite and “€œstreet cam”€ imagery already supplied by the site itself.  By actually grafting these Flickr images onto its existing, three-dimensional framework, Bing Maps allows anyone and everyone to collectively contribute to its easily navigable, virtual reality.

“Now that online mapping sites have declared an open season on the entire three-dimensional world (the night sky and the ocean floor included), when will they start mapping time as well?”

Not only will this application enable users to fully explore all their favorite vacation destinations without the hassle of leaving home, but Bing Maps also does interiors.  Own a hotel?  Upload a few photos and give prospective patrons the freedom to virtually tour the lobby before taking the elevator up to the very room they”€™re thinking of reserving.  Selling overpriced condos?  Make those yuppies salivate by showing off everything from the hot tub to the view from the balcony.  Yes, online mapping has also moved into the home.

All this might leave many of us wondering: Now that online mapping sites have declared an open season on the entire three-dimensional world (the night sky and the ocean floor included), when will they start mapping time as well?  The answer is, they”€™ve already started.

When photos are geotagged they are marked for their place in time as well.  Even now, Bing Maps has an application for displaying historic photographs.  But as our digital record of the world continues to expand and intensify, our record of the immediate past will follow in its wake.  Already, Streetside users can sift through layers of images taken of highly photographed locations, effectively moving those locations forward and backward in time.

Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope, which has also been integrated into Bing Maps, allows users to arrange constellations by date and time as well as location.  How long before users can adjust a similar setting on Streetside Photos, or even Bing Maps as a whole?  By simply typing a date into an online mapping site, our grandkids may be able to traverse the old New York of, say, 2010, you know, before the ice caps melted, and we all bought hover cars.

Of course, portraits, journals, and even home movies can be intimate vehicles for revisiting our past. The writings of Marcel Proust focus predominantly on memory and his attempts to recapture lost time.  What we”€™re on the cusp of, however, may be a future in which a great deal of our external world is recorded most of the time, creating a heavily integrated projection of the past far beyond what Proust ever got from eating madeleine cookies.

By populating sites like Bing Maps with images (and soon even video), we”€™re not just mapping the present; we”€™re creating an enormous museum for posterity, one that will make even the Smithsonian look puny by comparison.  We”€™re designing our own Borgesian fantasy, or perhaps nightmare, in which the symbols we use to represent the world actually become as vast and complex as the real world itself.  The more robust we make these sites, the greater our ability to travel back in time will be.

Perhaps we should pause to contemplate the drawbacks of compiling and conserving such an exhaustive record of the world.  When so much is saved, displayed, and revisited collectively, do we risk losing the intimacy and subjectivity of personal memory and, ultimately, individual voice?

Thankfully, Proust didn”€™t have Bing Maps, or we wouldn”€™t be blessed with one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, though perhaps I”€™m jumping to conclusions; Bing Maps is still in beta and, as of this writing, only provides Streetside Photos for a handful of cities.  And then there’s the fact that when I traverse Bing’s digital streets, I never seem to meet any people, one of the benefits of shunning augmented reality for a stroll through the physical world.


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