June 30, 2008 -- For those who want to cruise New York's city streets without ever having to leave a computer, Google offers a service called Street View, an interactive map made up of street-level photos.
And as the Internet giant plans to use the feature to replicate the streets of major cities worldwide, one company has begun to take this technology a few steps further.
Everyscape, a Massachusetts-based startup, has recently launched an online mapping service that allows users to not only explore a neighborhood but also to go inside shops and restaurants.
With a few clicks of a mouse, users can navigate through neighborhoods and tourist sites. A special icon next to a building invites users to enter and have a look around.
"While Google has focused their technology on building a better map, we wanted to do more and replicate the experience of actually being somewhere," Everyscape chief executive Jim Schoonmaker said.
And instead of dispatching a fleet of cars to scour major cities and capture snapshots the way Google does, the company relies on independent contractors recruited through its Web site. Trained to operate specialized equipment, these "destination ambassadors" are assigned regions and are paid per mile to map. By getting locals involved, Schoonmaker hopes to "enable the world to build the world."
West Coast representative Scott Gressit has spent the last six months doing just that, driving up and down the coast of California and snapping photos from a roof-mounted camera. Despite the constant commute, he's motivated by the project's prospects and plans to expand his efforts to major cities in Arizona and Nevada.
"It's an opportunity to be part something that will eventually be a household name, just like how Google is now," Gressit said.
On top of earning $10 for every street mile he helps put on the interactive map, the San Diego resident receives a commission whenever he convinces a business to have its interiors photographed -- a task that brings what he considers easy money.
"I met some people who immediately embrace and want to have a presence, while others have lots of questions and want to learn more," Gressit said. "But it's pretty well priced, so it's a pretty easy sale.
"I actually think it's underpriced," he said.
Joe Ryan, owner of the Press Box Sports Bar in Manhattan, was quickly sold on the idea when he was approached with an offer to lease his locale on the interactive map.
"It's absolutely worth the price of the lease," Ryan said. "We have a very nice private party room upstairs and whenever people call to see if they can have a party there, it was very hard for me to describe it. Now I just tell them to go to the site, and they can take a look around. It's a big help."
But even with a novel business plan and $7 million in investment from venture capital firms, challenges remain. Some experts say to cut into Google's market, the company would need to extend its mapping capabilities abroad to popular destinations like Sydney and London, where the legality of such technology has been challenged.
"It would be tough to expand what Everyscape does to other countries where privacy laws are more restrictive" said Kier Clarke at Google Maps Mania, which reviews Web sites inspired by Google Maps.
Last month, the European Union issued a statement warning Google to comply with the region's strict privacy laws. Google responded with a technology that blurs people's faces in photographs.
Still, Schoonmaker believes the promises are worth any potential difficulties.
"To be able to go to virtually visit a city like Aspen, walk down the street, hope on a gondola and go up a mountain and ski down," Schoonmaker said. "It's just a very powerful tool."