Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Take in the wonders of any city with just a smartphone and a cheap virtual reality headset.
For the many of us who can’t just hop on a plane and tour the world, Google Street View offers a free, virtual alternative. Still, there’s something lacking in clicking around the streets of Egypt on a laptop. It’s just not the same as being there.
Google is trying to bridge that gap by bringing virtual reality (VR) to its popular program. The tech giant announced this week that the Street View app for iOS and Android is now compatible with VR headsets, including a View-Master model made by toymaker Mattel, Zeiss’ VR One GX, and Google’s very own Cardboard viewer. Now, you can tour the vibrant streets of Bogota, Colombia, hop over to luxurious Dubai, then end your virtual trip in Las Vegas—no tickets or passport required.
Just like with the desktop version of Street View, the VR option offers a 360-degree look at any street, canyon, or island Google has to offer. (You can even take a trip below the sea.) But instead of clicking a mouse, you turn your head to look up and down, right or left. By using the buttons on your smart phone or on your headset, you can move around to explore.
As Jordan Novet at Venture Beat writes, “It’s just so interesting and immersive—the screen really is a couple of inches away from your eyeballs, so you notice a lot more detail than you do when you’re using Google Street View on desktop or on mobile.”
This VR update is an exciting way learn about places you’ve never been, but it won’t replace the thrill of physically exploring the dynamics of a city. Street View can show you the monuments and buildings that fill a space, but it doesn’t expose you its sounds. Because the images are static and in 2-D, there’s no way to interact with the green spaces of a public park or with shop owners you pass by.
And, for better or for worse, you miss out on experiencing the complexity of each city’s public transportation system. And getting lost on the subway is, of course, half the fun of traveling.