Google’s climb of Mount Meru

“Do you really want to climb this?” asked the journalist next to me as we looked up at the steep flight of steps leading up to Mount Meru. No, this was not the mythical mountain of Hindu yore. We were at the base of the structure at the centre of the famous Angkor Wat temple, a world heritage monument, at Siem Reap, Cambodia. The tall, conical structure housing the vimana at the top is at the third level from the ground and is said to represent Mount Meru of Hindu mythology.


We were already panting from the effort of climbing the first two levels of the massive temple on a hot and humid morning with the temperature hovering at 35 degrees Celsius. But there was no choice. We had to climb that steep flight of steps at about a 70 degree gradient to fully understand the challenge that technology giant, Google Inc., faced while putting the Angkor complex on its famous Street View.


To be sure, Angkor Wat is not the first heritage monument that Google has captured on Street View, which allows users to explore and navigate a neighbourhood or a complex through panoramic street-level photographs. It recently put the Taj Mahal on Street View and the Qutb Minar before that. Other world heritage structures such as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Eiffel Tower have also been put on Street View. But nowhere before this did Google have to meet the challenge of imaging minute stone etchings, carvings and sculptures as it did at Angkor Wat.


Google had to deploy people mounted with the Street View cameras on their backs. These so-called Street View Trekkers have a camera system on the top that has 15 lenses pointing in different directions to get a 360 degree view. These cameras take pictures every 2.5 seconds, each of 75 mega pixels resolution. The cameras can be controlled by an Android phone which the operator holds in his hand.


The Trekker was necessary as the Street View cars obviously could not drive into the Angkor Wat complex. More importantly, the wall carvings and the pillars could be captured in full detail only with the help of the Trekker.


The operators lugged around the expensive, sophisticated equipment weighing 18 kilograms on their backs as they walked around the temple complex taking pictures.


The images taken by these Trekkers and the Street View cars were then stitched together using proprietary software to form the 360 degree panoramic Street View image of the temple.


The Angkor Wat Street View has the highest number of images used until now by Google in any such imagery with 90,000 images stitched together, though it captured much more than that.


Revenue model

All this obviously costs a lot of money and effort and why is Google investing in this? Is there a revenue model? We asked Google this question and the answer was interesting. Yes, it is possible to make money from Google Maps, though not necessarily from Street View imagery of monuments or other historical sites. But Google claims it is not doing this for the money but because it’s a strategic bet and a brand-building exercise. With $48 billion of free cash on its balance-sheet, Google can afford to say so.


Manik Gupta, Group Product Manager, Google Maps, based out of the headquarters in Mountain View, California, points out that it is possible to make money from the mapping products.


“We actually monetise Maps today in a few ways. We have a pretty healthy enterprise business where we offer different products — Google Earth for enterprises is one such. We also have our Maps APIs (application programming interface) which developers can use to embed maps into their applications.


Today, it is one of the most popular APIs in the world and more than a million developers use our APIs. If you take any website such as a real estate or taxi company, you will see a Google Map in it and that’s an API. A large fraction of the API usage is below the threshold of being charged which is why developers love it. But if you use it extensively then there is a pricing model and that is where we make money from large customers. We also have other pricing models such as if you want to use it on your intranet only,” he says.


And then, of course, there is the possibility of selling map-linked ads for restaurants, theatres and so on.


“You might see a few ads on Google maps from time to time. We are an ads company and make some money from that,” says Mr. Gupta. But he quickly points out in the same breath that creating these maps and data is a big strategic bet for Google.


According to him, more than a billion people use Google maps on a monthly basis globally, which is a staggering number. Street View, for instance, has already mapped out 6 million miles of roads in 55 countries. So imagine the positioning that this gives Google in the long-term.


A similar strategy also plays out behind its other not-so-well-known division called the Google Cultural Institute (GCI). The unit is really a small group of about 20-30 people whose aim is to get global cultural treasures such as art works and historical sites online. The idea is to help preserve them digitally for future generations.


The GCI ( culturalinstitute) works with museums, governments and institutions around the world to get their artefacts online.


The imaging is done through Street View cameras adapted to shoot in low-light conditions inside museums.


These images are offered in what the company calls ‘gigapixel’ format that will help users to zoom into paintings, for instance, at brushstroke level to see minute detail that will otherwise be missed. Heading this operation is another executive of Indian-origin, Amit Sood.


Mr. Sood, who is Director, GCI and Founder, Google Art Project, says that there is no revenue model behind the GCI. “We have been set up as a non-commercial entity at the request of our partners.


The contracts that we have with all our partners has a clause that we will not monetise the content on the cultural institute’s websites and that’s fair enough because most of the people we work with are governments, museums and institutions and they are all non-profit in nature,” he says.


But that’s the straight answer. There’s a more complex one too which makes more sense. Some countries, including India, have denied Google permission to map their streets using Street View due to privacy and security concerns. Projects such as the GCI have helped change perceptions of the Street View technology, according to Mr. Sood.


“We now have the Taj Mahal on Street View and it shows what is possible with the technology. So to me the business logic is that let’s show what the power of technology can do using culture because nobody will say that he hates culture. It also supports Google’s mission which is accessibility and let me be blunt: its good for the brand,” he declares.


Google’s long-term thinking is quite clear. The technology giant is harnessing all its prowess and financial clout to build its brand and knock down artificial barriers to growth.
The company is now steadily climbing the technological equivalent of Mount Meru leaving competition huffing and puffing behind. It will be interesting to see what it does once it gets there.


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