At 5:30 on Monday morning, I joined a small huddle of journalists on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to get a first look at the completed Google Trekker on its inaugural trip into the wilds.
Coming through the mist with headlamps and a bright blue and green contraption peering over each of their heads, the Google engineers look a little extraterrestrial. “No one’s going to sneak up on you with a Trekker," said Steve Silverman, the project's operations program manager. "We want people to see it and experience the same sort of excitement they do with the car.”
But if anything, sighting a Street View hiker is more thrilling than getting scanned by the car. The 75-megapixel camera is mounted in an aluminum baffle, resembling a massive soccer ball, and with the rig on a guy's back, you can get close enough to look into one of the 15 lenses that capture a brisk 2.5 frames per second. The lenses are bespoke, like almost everything on the trekker, and specifically designed to reduce flare from the sun. The whole system is controlled by an Android phone, which monitors the navigational system and allows the user to look at photos from the camera as they're being taken.
In development, Luc Vincent, the project's engineering director, has been taking the Trekker out for some cross-country skiing runs around Squaw Valley, so he knows the effect it can produce. “People looked at us like we were from outer space," he said. "In Squaw, a kid came up to me and asked why I didn’t just use a GoPro. I said, this is a bit different.”
Vincent has been long anticipating this trip, where he and his team will map the iconic Bright Angel Trail and spend the night camping at Phantom Ranch. In fact, the Trekker team, made up of engineers and software designers, all looked thrilled to be on trail. They say they had to fight for their spot on this project, beating back the surprisingly large number of outdoor enthusiasts at Google.
The Grand Canyon was a spectacular backdrop for the Trekker's dry run, but the location also posed certain challenges that were integral in shaping the design. A hiking rig would have to be wearable, lightweight, robust, with good battery life, built to compensate for the unsteadiness of a hiker, and able to operate in a remote area where GPS can’t reach. You need a system that works even when satellites won't—for instance, in the shadow of a canyon's walls.
“It was really important for us to have the same sort of seamless resolution for the Trekker as we have for the car, and especially in this environment, you don’t want to compromise on that," said product manager Ryan Falor. "We have a whole variety of sensors, including gyros, magnetometers, barometers, and accelerometers to fill in the gaps of the GPS."
The setup also had to be weatherproof. The removable hard drive and eight-hour rechargable batteries are protected by a door with a waterproof O-ring seal. The Trekker can be submerged for 10 minutes under one meter of water and withstand temperatures ranging from -15 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit.