We wanted to put the Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) on Google Streetview to make us more accessible to those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). For people with ASD it helps to know what to expect at a place before they arrive, and Google Streetview remains one of the most popular ways of scoping a place out. (Our offer for people with ASD is forthcoming at the MERL.)
We thought it would be difficult to get on Streetview. What we didn’t realise is that:
- pretty much anyone with the right equipment can put themselves on Google Streetview
- it isn’t rocket science
So, in this blog I’m going to tell you how we did it, in case you also want to do it. If you want to skip straight to our Google Streetview tour, click here.
In case you don’t know, Google Streetview is attempting to capture every street in 360-degree photography. You just drag the little yellow guy on Google Maps onto the street and have a look.
Google Streetview also extends inside buildings, for which you used to have to hire a Trusted Pro to photograph your building. Google now allows anyone to do it themselves, kind of like what crowd-sourcing Panoramio used to be except for 360° photos.
Google will accept any photos taken with decent 360° cameras, and even accepts photo spheres made with a normal smartphone camera if they’re good enough. They have a very good page on how to publish for Google Streetview here.
So, technically you just need a smartphone, but the photo-spheres I’ve made using just a normal camera almost always come out a bit glitchy. So I suggest getting a real camera.
We used a Ricoh Theta-S but we’ve heard good things about the Samsung Gear 360. We could afford to buy our Theta-S thanks to the South East Museum Development Programme Digital Initiatives Fund (thanks guys). Otherwise they cost about £190–300. If you’re a museum near Reading we’d be happy to lend you ours.
I’m going to talk specifically about the Theta-S.
The basic steps are:
- Install the Theta app (also on Android)
- Connect your smartphone or tablet to the camera’s WiFi
- Take photos remotely using your smartphone/tablet
- Upload them to Google Streetview on their app
The Theta-S takes images using two cameras on either side of its body, then stitches them together for you. You just export the jpeg and upload it onto something like Google Streetview or Facebook – sites which can translate the file into an interactive photo-sphere.
Setting up the tour
So taking 360° photos is literally as easy as pressing a button, but planning the actual 360° tour? Not so much.
For starters we didn’t want the photographer in the photo, so we mounted the Theta S on a monopod and hid behind walls as we took the photo. This only failed once.
We decided to capture the Museum while it was empty and shot on a Monday, our closure day. Images of an empty museum, however, may give the wrong impression of the museum to someone with ASD, as we usually have visitors milling around. We plan to test this out with focus groups.
We also wanted to be able to capture the whole museum, and planning our tour was made easier by how our galleries are fairly one-way and linear.
Because we only have our ground floor layer on Google Maps, though, we had to miss out our first floor open store. We originally had both ground and first floors published, but rapidly realised it was confusing people as they kept switching randomly between floors in Streetview. We hope to see whether getting our ground and first floor plans published on Google means we can then separate Streetview tours between them.
Google suggests taking photos a metre apart indoors, but we rarely kept to this. On our first run we had a distance of something like five metres, and then we went back to fill in some gaps.
There’s an option to connect the Google Streetview app to your 360° camera, but we chose to take the photos and upload them separately (Import 360° photos). I highly suggest taking all the photos you need, cut any mistakes and then upload them all in one batch. If you have a museum the size of the MERL you can do the whole museum in one go (76 photos), or if you’re larger you could do it by gallery.
After taking our photos we also realised some of them featured copyrighted artworks. We opened these images in Photoshop, blurred out the artworks and re-saved them – they still worked fine after editing, which was a relief. The Google Streetview app also gives you the option of automatically blurring faces.
Once you have your photos collected you need to select all your photos and attach them to an address (i.e., your museum).
With all the photos still selected, you then need to choose their precise locations on Google Maps. This step is probably the most time-consuming. As well as placing them in the exact spot you took them on your floorplan, you also need to orient them to the compass so they’re pointed in the right direction. This is very important for when you connect your photos in a tour.
When your photos are placed and oriented you can publish them to Google Streetview. They usually show up fairly fast on the app and on desktop.
The beauty of Streetview is that you can place your photos in a sequential tour. The option to link photos is only available after publication.
To do this I’d again suggest selecting all your photos at once, and then choosing the option to place and link.
You connect your photos by simply tapping the line between them, and you can link more than one picture to another.
It updates instantly on the app, but it takes a couple of days before you will be able to navigate through your photos on desktop using your keyboard’s arrow keys or on your phone by tapping around.
The aim of publishing our museum on Google Streetview is to prepare people for what to expect at the Museum. It definitely accomplishes that.
We considered photos and video, and have these options available too, but nothing beats Streetview for giving the full picture. People already use Google and Streetview, and it meant we could also embed the tour on our website.
With our planning, testing and re-runs the whole process probably took us three full days of work. If you know what you need to capture, organise a day for photography and dedicate the day to editing the photos then you could easily get a museum the size of the MERL done in a day’s work.
A note on the Google Streetview app
I don’t know whether it’s because I installed it on an iPad, but the Google Streetview app is buggy as hell. It crashes, it is unresponsive and often the map is completely obscured by cards. Prepare to be frustrated, and work/save in batches to avoid losing your work.
Another weird glitch which hasn’t been fixed yet is the option to transfer the rights of your photos to the place where you took them. This is primarily intended for Trusted Pros who are hired to make 360-degree tours, and who then transfer the rights to the people who commissioned the tour. It seemed strange that we could transfer rights to photos taken using the MERL Google account to our same Google account tied to the business. We did it anyway and all of our photos promptly disappeared from Google Maps.
So, don’t do that until they’ve fixed it? But otherwise have fun.