Google Launches World Wonders Project

Independence Hall in Google World Wonders. To protect the statue’s identity, his face has been blurred!

Google recently launched its World Wonders Project, an edited compilation of world heritage sites using its Street View technology to “bring to life the wonders of the modern and ancient world.”  If you’re not already familiar with Street View, it allows you to navigate Google Maps through 360-degree images so you can look left, right, up, and down.  At present, they’ve assembled 132 sites from 18 countries, including Stonehenge, Pompeii, Versailles, and Himeji Castle. Sites are organized by location and theme, and each site features a large navigable photo with a map and a slide-out window of information, video, and photographs.  The World Wonders Project also includes education packages for primary and secondary levels that are linked to specific “wonders,” such as “liberty and the US declaration of independence” for Independence Hall.  These are large zipped files, so I didn’t investigate them.

It’s exciting that Google is working with Unesco and the World Monuments Fund to bring  attention to this amazing places, but there’s some work to do.  First of all, the list of sites is a bit odd.  There are twenty-one sites listed for Japan and only nine sites listed for the United States (and I bet you won’t even guess three of them).  And while Google calls these historic sites, it includes such natural places as Yosemite, the Swiss Alps, and the Gulf of California (maybe they should call these significant sites or landmarks).  Finally, the ability to explore these sites from your home sounds really cool but it turns out to be a bit of a tease.  You get tantalizingly close to some great places, but usually it’s only a limited view from the street.  Don’t expect to go inside the buildings or behind the stanchions.  If there’s ever a reason for taking down the velvet ropes, this is it.  But then there are some interpretive problems:

  • The famous bridge in the Ironbridge Gorge can be seen from both sides of the river, but you can’t cross the bridge (so you miss the primary experience of crossing the bridge).
  • You start your explorations of U. S. Route 66 on a dirt road somewhere in the California desert while the map points to Chicago.  It should start at one of the ends, but even so, I’m not sure what people will learn by clicking through a couple thousand miles of highway.  Perhaps just a handful of representative sites along the route would have been more useful.
  • You can go inside the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima (finally inside!!) but alas, you can’t look up to experience the famous dome nor can you go around the building.

I should also warn you that the wide angle lens can really distort your view and become disorienting at times. The technology works best for large open spaces but close up, buildings like Independence Hall become circular and you can lose your way (the gardens at Stowe are just exhausting to navigate).

The World Wonders Project is one of several diverse products coming out of the Google Cultural Institute.  If you want to be impressed, check out the Art Project or Dead Sea Scrolls, or see if you’re as puzzled by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory as I am.