Web Watch

Google Service Homes In On the Street Where You Live

By Leslie Walker
Sunday, April 10, 2005

For a weird walk down memory lane, visit Google's latest mapping service (maps.google.com), type in old addresses where you once lived and click on the "satellite" links appearing at the upper right. That should call up aerial photographs of your old 'hoods.

Google's peeping satellite service, launched last week, offers rooftop photographic views of the United States. Their resolution varies; users can zoom to house-level detail only for areas covering about half the population. In those parts, Google Maps' sharp aerial images, taken by satellite, provide street-level views of many homes, businesses and landmarks.

While many of the images are several years old, the service is as impressive technically as it is unnerving socially. It is provided by Keyhole Corp., a digital mapping service (http://www.keyhole.com/) that Google bought last year and that was funded by CIA-backed In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm.

Keyhole has compiled an image database that stitches together photos taken in such a way that you can pan right or left, up or down and around the neighborhoods, creating a you-are-almost-there feeling. Your ability to zoom in to the backyard-swimming-pool level, though, varies based on the type of photo Keyhole has in its database. Our tests suggest Keyhole's imagery is extremely limited in Maryland and stronger in Virginia and the District, but seems to be several years old in many areas.

Google spokesman Barry Schnitt said, "The images are generally six to 18 months old. Our goal is to update these images every 18 months."

Google has integrated Keyhole satellite imagery into Google Local, its sites-near-you query option, as well as Google Maps, to make it easier for people searching for local businesses to click from a particular listing over to Google Maps and zoom around the aerial images.

To view the satellite images that Google started offering for free last week, people previously had to pay a subscription fee to Keyhole and download its software. Customers can still pay $30 a year to Keyhole and get a more advanced service, covering areas outside the United States and offering a view that feels more like a three-dimensional experience.

Other sites offer a similar perspective, sometimes from even closer; for example, the photos on Microsoft's Terra Server (terraserver.microsoft.com) allow a viewer to distinguish different makes of cars on a street.

Not everyone will be happy about their homes being viewable on the Web, even if they do look tiny and fuzzy. Some privacy advocates are urging Google to offer an online "opt-out" feature that would let people type in their addresses to have their homes blurred or blanked out from Google's public-image database.


There are plenty of pick-a-pope sites, too. For example, one straw-poll site (electapope.com) allows people to cast virtual votes for the next pontiff. The Vatican's official site (http://www.vatican.va/), meanwhile, offers videos from Rome, along with the pope's last will and testament in Italian and Polish.

E-mail Leslie Walker at walkerl@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company