Web surfers accustomed to cruising the streets of cities worldwide via Google Maps' panoramic images will soon be able to click open some front doors, touring the interiors of participating businesses under Google's new virtual tour feature.
Photo crews will be in the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton areas between July 29 and Aug. 2 to create 360-degree virtual tours inside businesses that register for the program, said Ithaca, N.Y.-based Google photography coordinator Jim Hilker.
There are, however, two key requirements: interested businesses must contact Google, Hilker said — company policy prevents photographers from soliciting businesses — and businesses must pay a "small one-time fee."
Google policy also prevents Hilker from disclosing the fee, he said, but he added that once it is paid, the images will be hosted permanently on Google without charge.
Business owners must register at www.seeinsidepa.com. Hilker's team of four expects initially to sign up 20 businesses each in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, he said. Additional photography sessions could be added later this summer if demand warrants, Hilker said.
"We have to cover a lot of different cities throughout the summer," said Hilker, whose territory includes Pennsylvania, New York and parts of New England.
HIGH-TECH PRODUCT LINE
California-based Google might be best known for its popular Internet search engine, but its range of products has expanded to include email, online language translation and Google Maps, a collection of international maps, satellite and "street view" images.
The new virtual tour program will post the indoor images not only to street view, but to business listings for the individual firms that are maintained online in connection with Google's search engine. Searches for participating businesses on any of Google's services will provide viewers with a linked thumbnail image inviting them to "see inside."
The service is open to a range of businesses, from restaurants and boutiques to dental and professional offices, automotive showrooms, hotels and colleges and universities, Hilker said.
Google launched the feature last year, following several years of development. Its roster of available tours includes such non-commercial landmarks as the White House and the Parliament of Canada, but already photographers have visited 100,000 businesses worldwide, Hilker said, including more than 40,000 in the United States. About 3,000 new businesses are photographed across the country each month, he added.
The photos are produced using a rotating digital camera mounted on a tripod to take the photographs. In most situations, the camera is stationed at five places and takes 12 pictures at each site. The most important part of the process, he said, is the "stitching" software that links the separate photos together to create a seamless rotating view.
For all the high-tech work, Hilker said, the process is relatively quick and non-intrusive, and the company blurs the faces of anyone in the photos to protect their privacy.
"We can go into a business now, and many times we are gone before most people have a chance to realize we were even there," Hilker said.
STATE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE
Among those Pennsylvania businesses to have participated thus far is the Centre Animal Hospital in State College, whose virtual tour was taken late last month and uploaded to the web this week.
"It was easy, a great experience," said hospital administrator Connie Passmore. Hospital officials read about the program in their local newspaper and felt that participating might help reach more clients via the web and social media, Passmore said.
The hospital's virtual tour brings viewers into a spotless waiting room, where colorful posters and neat bags of pet foot stacked on a shelf lead toward the front desk.
"I think it will be really worth it," Passmore said, adding that she believes the images will help prospective clients make a decision about whether to bring their pets to the hospital "based on the first couple of feet" they see inside the business.