Author Brian Kevin Illustration Graham Roumieu
Along Vail’s Gore Valley Trail, last-chance spring skiers pause between runs to watch a sinewy twentysomething pedal by on a tricked-out pedicab. The May weather is brisk, but the cyclist is sweating furiously, and no wonder: The imaging gear on the back of his giant tricycle weighs in at 250 pounds.
Chris Fiock is part of a small fleet of cyclists currently grinding their gears worldwide in the employ of the vast Google network. Last summer, the internet behemoth officially launched its Street View Trike program, a pedal-powered project to expand the 360-degree viewing capabilities of its Google Maps application by taking the company’s omnidirectional camera technology off-road in places like Moab and Yellowstone.
Last fall, Google expanded the program to dozens more off-road sites and started a contest to nominate worthy locales. Then a dozen riders fanned out across the U.S., Europe, Japan and South Africa, capturing not just trails but revered landmarks such as Versailles and SeaWorld Orlando. And a recent arrangement with UNESCO has dispatched trikes to World Heritage Sites Stonehenge and Pompeii.
“The trike riders love this job,” says Fiock as he swigs from a water bottle. “You get to see the country, you work when the weather is good and you get in shape.”
The trike itself is the brainchild of a Google engineer and mountain-biking fanatic. Behind the rider, eight high-def camera lenses are mounted above an enclosed trailer containing a generator, CPU and GPS. Though Fiock is routinely engaged by curious onlookers and grandstanders seeking internet fame, he’s most often approached by children who mistake the trailer for a refrigerator and ask for ice cream.
So far, only a few Street View Trike maps are available, including some of the Palo Alto foothills down the road from Google headquarters. But the map will grow. Fiock’s next task involves mounting the cameras on snowmobiles in order to map the slopes.