A Web Tour Will Show Stores From the Inside Out
THREE-DIMENSIONAL mapping programs like Google Earth let people fly over the rooftops of virtual cities, and other online services lead them down individual streets.
Now, one company is planning 3-D-like tours of Cambridge, Mass., and other cities that not only venture down streets, but also inside some local businesses. Tourists to this virtual Cambridge will be able to click their way along a Brattle Street rendered in realistic detail, and move through the computer-generated interiors of dozens of nearby shops and institutions.
EveryScape (www.everyscape.com) in Waltham, Mass., will start virtual tours of streets and businesses in Cambridge and Lexington, Mass., in December, said Mok Oh, founder and chief technology officer.
EveryScape is charging companies about $250 to $2,000, depending on the size of the space, to create an indoor tour of the business and to display it for a year, Mr. Oh said.
Companies that need to update merchandise regularly, like shops showing seasonal collections, can arrange package deals to include the updates for an extra charge.
Many businesses in Cambridge and Lexington have signed up, including the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, the university’s main store for books and merchandise bearing the Harvard seal.
Visitors to the Cambridge Web site will be able to mosey down a virtual version of Harvard Square’s red brick walkways and, at the click of a mouse, inspect three floors of merchandise at the Coop, or, if they have a sweet tooth, repair to a nearby ice cream parlor and check out the flavors.
EveryScape’s service may be attractive to companies that want to expand their online presence beyond a standard Web listing, said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.
Many of the neighborhood group’s 350 members have already signed up to have tours created for their businesses. Some of the businesses and institutions are relatively big, like the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Charles Hotel, but others, like bookstores, restaurants, art galleries, a hair salon and a massage therapist, are much smaller, said Jeff Brandes,vice president for business development at EveryScape.
Online visitors will be able to take the tour when they go to the Harvard Square Business Association site, www.harvardsquare.com. A preliminary version of the tour, already posted, lets visitors navigate local streets, but not the interiors of businesses.
The Harvard Square site is popular, Ms. Jillson said. It gets about 2 million hits a month, about 37,000 of them first-time visitors, up from about 1.3 million and 30,000 new visitors a year ago.
Allan Powell, corporate general manager of the Harvard Coop, said that tourists “are going more and more on the Web to view a destination before they get there.” Adding a virtual tour of the Coop might attract new business by introducing people to the store’s range of goods. “We want to tell a better story through the Web,” he said.
Mike Liebhold, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future, a research organization in Palo Alto, Calif., says EveryScape is entering a complex marketplace of mapping services that already has many established players, like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo.
“Everybody has got these street views from the outside,” he said of existing technology. “But the idea of interior views is terrific, because Google, Microsoft and Yahoo don’t have that yet.”
One of Mr. Liebhold’s research interests is what he calls “blended realities, or the combination of real and virtual worlds.” EveryScape’s mapping service is an interesting example of it, he said. Rather than being an imaginary place like, the online virtual community Second Life, he said, “EveryScape is taking a real place, Harvard Square, and creating a virtual world that is modeled closely on it.”
To capture images of streetscapes for this virtual world, EveryScape has been dispatching cars with four standard digital single-lens reflex cameras mounted to the roof — pointing east, west, north and south — through the streets of Cambridge, Lexington, and other cities where they are mapping public spaces, Mr. Oh said. Every 50 feet or so, the driver presses a button to take a panoramic photograph that is the basis for a rendering that simulates three dimensions.
So far, a limited number of street tours in Boston, New York, Miami Beach and Aspen, Colo., can be seen on a beta version of EveryScape’s Web site.
For the interior scenes, one method of imaging uses a camera with a fisheye lens that captures the 360-degree area by making two shots in opposite directions. Then software stitches the images together and models the space, calculating what people standing at the exact spot of the photographs would see if, for instance, they looked up at the ceiling or down at the floor. These images change smoothly from one to another as the viewer moves around the room with the computer mouse.
Jerry Michelson, a member of the retailers’ association in Lexington, said the modest price of the service was right for him. A store, for instance, may need only one to three panoramic views, costing $250 to $500, to display its entire public area. He has signed up to show his business, Michelson’s Shoes, at www.viewlexington.com when the Web site goes into operation in December.
”Our business has had a Web site for many years,” he said. “This is the next step.”