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Goggle 'C' : Google's Trekker takes Street View off Bucks County's beaten path

05/30/2015 | 09:10am US/Eastern

May 30--Scene: Tyler State Park in Newtown. A placid late-spring morning. Geese call. Birds trill in the understory. Toads grunt out throaty, muddy love calls.

And Paul Bencivengo straps on Trevor the robot.

Trevor is 48 pounds of cameras, hard drives, batteries, straps, and pads. Bencivengo hitches, gets comfy -- and prepares to walk nine to 10 miles.

Trevor, meantime, will be taking thousands of photos, 360 degrees, direct to hard disk. Those will go to Google, which, stitching the images into a GPS digital grid, will create a visual map of the park from the hiker's viewpoint.

Are these Bencivengo's usual duties as vice president of Visit Bucks County, the tourism agency?

"In my job description," the lightly perspiring Bencivengo says, "this would be classed under 'other unspecified duties.' "

Trevor is the office nickname for what is officially called Google Trekker. And Trevor/Trekker has officially come to Bucks County, to places like Washington Crossing Historical Park, Bowman's Hill Tower, Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, and Shady Brook Farm.

And if it's Wednesday, it must be Tyler.

What is Trekker? It's an adjunct to Street View, the feature in Google Maps or Google Earth that lets you descend to street level and have a look around. Launched in 2007, Street View broke the from-on-high map tradition. Now you can go from heaven (the view of trad maps) to Earth.

But what if you can't drive there? What if you can only walk? Fields? Farmlands? Parks? Trails? Open country? How can you map that?

Enter (on somebody's back) Trekker. "It's exactly like Street View," Bencivengo says, "only off the beaten track."

Susan Cadrecha, Google Inc.'s communications manager for maps, says Google and partners want to collect images "of interesting, remote and hard-to-reach areas that people would like to see on Google Maps." Thus Bencivengo and colleagues (they trade off) have been pacing methodically (preferred Google speed: 25-minute mile, slower on overcast days) through Bucks sites, while Trevor/Trekker automatically does its photographic thing.

Bencivengo says that as far as he knows, this is Google Trekker's debut in Pennsylvania, almost certainly in the Philadelphia region. (As a drivable city, Philly itself is well documented in Street View, but Fairmount Park and the Wissahickon would be great for Trekker.) Locations throughout Hawaii, Florida, and Michigan already have posted extensive Trekker maps, with more to come.

Cadrecha says the idea is to enable "third parties to borrow our Street View Trekker and collect imagery of unique places they know and love. By loaning the equipment to organizations around the world, we can capture images from new locations more quickly, and improve our ability to make these images available online." It's all part "of Google's ongoing effort to build the most comprehensive, accurate, and usable map of the world."

In this quest to map the mappable, Google is in close touch with many, if not most, of the tourist agencies across the land. "They're a presence at all the visitors' bureau conventions," Bencivengo says. "We learned about Trekker, and we applied, about six months ago." It's a pretty easy form (bit.ly/1GPJme8) -- must have been the essay that won. "What made Bucks ideal for Trekker is that it has so much public space, so many wide-open attractions. It was made for it."

Visit Bucks County was accepted. "And then one day," Bencivengo says, "reception called and said, 'There's a big pallet from . . . Google?' " It was Trevor arriving in the mail, ready to be assembled. But no manual! (All assembly instructions were online, natch.)

All this is free to Visit Bucks County. "Our only cost," Bencivengo says, "was a fee to Pennsylvania to do this mapping." Google pays all packing and postage. Bencivengo also took a short course on how to do this job.

It's no one-person job. Colleague Heather Walter, marketing director, is navigator, Trekker buddy, and creator of this day's hiking plan. She walks from 25 to 50 feet behind, and tries to "duck behind trees" to stay out of camerashot. "I have to pay attention to my machine and walk," Bencivengo says, "and Heather makes sure I stay on course."

Bencivengo holds two cellphones. On one, he has a Trekker app that monitors, among other things, Trevor's battery life and hard-drive space. His second phone has the MapMyWalk app, by which he and Walter make sure he treads the right byways. "We try not to go any place twice," Walter says. That reflects the way Google overlays the images on its GPS grids: Cross-crossing or doubling back are not desired. Walter also "makes sure he's hydrated" and shoulders Trevor when Bencivengo needs a break.

Visit Bucks County has a deadline of June 12 to submit all the hard disks from all the treks. After Tyler, Bucks treks include Ringing Rocks Park, Sand Castle Winery, Peace Valley Lavender Farm, Core Creek Park, Nockamixon State Park, Peace Valley Park, Neshaminy State Park, and the Delaware Canal. At about 10 miles each, that'll wear out a set of boots.

A few months after receipt (exact time unspecified), Google will stitch together the images, blur out any human faces caught on camera, and launch Trekker for the Bucks locations.

Visit Bucks County, in return, gets to put the images on its website. The agency has long been online-literate, winning awards for its social-media initiatives (including an Instagram contest this summer), so Trekker made sense. "We're targeting tech-savvy visitors, people who rely on these media," Bencivengo says. "This is what today's travelers expect." He speaks of "immersing" users in as many virtual views as possible of where they want to go -- before they get there.

As toads bray and geese chorus, Bencivengo, Trevor, and Walter trudge up an incline to picturesque Schofield Ford Covered Bridge. "This is a great use of my Boy Scout orienteering skills," he says. And off they go, as Trevor takes in the view.

jt@phillynews.com 215-854-4406 @jtimpane

___

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

© Tribune Content Agency, source Regional News

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