The first time I used Street View, I was blown away. I had been a religious frequenter of maps.google.com, taking along the printouts on road trips, looking at aerial maps of my hometown, and in more recent years I’ve taken to referring to the maps application on my phone. I’ll never forget the moment when I saw the map change into an image of the street; complete with a shot of the façade of the very restaurant I was looking for. In an instant, my expectations of digital maps were completely transformed.
My only complaint about them came about a year ago, when a friend at work showed me an address on a map in the middle of Brooklyn. When he activated street view and zoomed the camera toward the sidewalk, I was confronted with a picture of his profile. As cool as it was to see him immortalized, it’s a bit unsettling to think that my image may be floating around in street scenes without my knowing about it. Since its introduction in 2007, Google has been capturing a steadily growing number of images, expanding into over 10 countries. Because the street-level images have sparked debate over Google’s adherence to privacy laws, they have introduced a program which automatically blurs pedestrians faces and license plate numbers. One student at the University of California at San Diego says that facial blurring simply isn’t enough: he is attempting to remove pedestrians from the street altogether.
Arturo Flores has introduced a technique that yields impressive results. If you’ve used GSV, you’ll know that it’s possible to see multiple angles of one scene by virtually walking down the street and spinning the camera angle. By using a pedestrian-detecting algorithm on one picture, then repositioning a second picture to align with the first, the pedestrian can effectively be erased by swapping pixels between the two images.
There are some limitations of course, like slight differences in color between images due to sun angles and glitches in the pedestrian-finding algorithm, but in the series of pictures published by Flores and professor Serge Belongie, it appears as though a Vanilla Sky-esque pedestrian-free drive through the streets in Street View isn’t too far out.