Google’s Street View Debuts in Thailand
Google Inc. officially unveiled its new Street View service for Thailand, releasing online a vast collection of panoramic street-level images of the country.
That means that anyone with a Web connection can now view high resolution photos of everything from Bangkok street food stalls to the ornate spires of the city’s Grand Palace. There are also images of the northern city of Chiang Mai and the southern beach resort of Phuket.
Thailand has become the 35th nation to get its own Street View service, and it is just the second country in Southeast Asia after Singapore. Google has been working to map the three Thai locations since September 2011.
Amy Kunrojpanya, Google’s head of communications and public affairs in Thailand, told Southeast Asia Real Time that the Mountain View, California-based company sped up its efforts to finish the project after massive floods hit Thailand in late 2011. She said the company wanted users to be able to view tourist sites up close and see that things have now returned to normal after the inundation.
To capture the high resolution images, Google deployed drivers manning dozens of cars equipped with rooftop cameras containing 15 lenses. The devices snapped 360 degree still images, which were later “stitched” together to create seamless, clickable panoramas.
David Marx, Google’s Asia Pacific communications manager, said that “We really wanted to show people that the floods were over and that Thailand was back, and to have (Street View) be useful for tourism around the world.” Mr. Marx said that similarly, after last year’s tsunami and earthquake in Japan, Google’s Street View images of that country were used in the crisis response to convey the extent of the damage to relief workers and others.
Now that Thailand’s floodwaters have drained, Street View can also be used in a more typical fashion: as a navigational aid. Google representatives say they hope that small businesses can use the service to show patrons where their shops or offices are located. A hotel in the northern city of Chiang Mai, for example, could embed Street View images on their Web site to demonstrate to potential guests the establishment’s proximity to a popular tourist attraction like the city’s Tha Phae Gate, Ms. Kunrojpanya said.
Indeed, government officials say they hope Street View will be used to help raise awareness of the country’s charms. The service was launched today in coordination with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which says it envisions prospective visitors from afar using the Street View to research their holidays in the country. The TAT helped Google identify areas to be mapped, with more images being captured through this year. The TAT has also launched a campaign to allow people to submit more sites to be mapped by what Google calls its “Trike,” a three-wheeled device that can access areas that are more difficult to reach.
Asked if the new Street View service is related to Google’s quest for more search-ad dollars, which account for most of the company’s $37 billion in annual revenue, Mr. Marx said that the images add “a completely new layer of information” to Google Maps. This conforms, he said, to Google’s “stated mission to organize all the world’s information.”
Perhaps more important to the company’s bottom line, though, the service is offered in Thai, and Google is keen to build up the amount of Thai language material online broadly. Ms. Kunrojpanya points out that Thailand has the world’s 20th largest population, but that less than one percent of the Web is in Thai. Presumably, more Web content in Thai means more potential for locally-tailored Google ads.
This is not the first time Google and Thailand have been in the news. In 2007 the Thai government blocked YouTube — owned by Google — for five months because it contained videos deemed offensive to the Thai king. But Google representatives say deploying the Street View service in Thailand did not present any special cultural challenges. They say the government asked that just two types of sites be off limits to Google’s cameras: royal projects and military bases. Indeed, the cameras only capture what is publicly viewable from roads.
Meanwhile, global users are already having fun with the new service. Savvy Web surfers discovered on Wednesday afternoon — a day before the official announcement — that the service was live. Some observers even created a Twitter hash tag, #BKKStreetView, and used it to identify interesting images they’d found of the city. One such image captures what appears to be a flip flop clad Western tourist standing on a sidewalk staring at a map.
Others pointed out that in one image, the reflection of one of Google’s special cars can be seen in a mirror outside an establishment along central Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy, a street full of raunchy go-go bars.
To ease privacy concerns, Google says it has obscured images of individuals’ faces and vehicle license plates. One Twitter user pointed out, though, that this was taken to the extreme: In one image, even the famous faces of Manchester United players who appear in a bus stop advertisement have been blurred.