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Google extends ‘Street View’ to state parks (w/video)

Need to get away?

Don’t tell the boss, but Google’s virtual technology wizards have made it possible to visit a bevy of California state parks without having to leave your desk, or even your bed.

Want to hike the Dipsea Trail - site of America’s oldest off-road footrace - on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, or along the ocean bluffs of Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur? How about a relaxing stroll through a blanket of ferns in Tomales Bay State Park?

It’s simple. Just log on to Google Maps, type in the park name and click on the small yellow dude, or what Google calls the “pegman.” Then put him to work. The mapped trails look like blue Etch-a-Sketch lines.

For Google, bringing its popular Street View technology onto some of the state’s iconic trails serves the company’s interest to map the known universe, one road and rock at a time.

For California State Parks, the partnership is a boost to its stated goal of modernizing.

Of course, the arrangement also begs the question whether virtual maps might discourage people from actually visiting parks. Why go to the trouble of hiking the strenuous Coyote Creek Loop at Henry W. Coe State Park southeast of San Jose when you can do so virtually from the comfort of your smartphone?

“We believe the more information people have, the more they see what’s in the state parks system, the more they’ll want to come,” said Lisa Mangat, acting director of the state parks system.

Mangat joined other state parks officials, elected representatives and Google employees at Mount Tamalpais on Tuesday to demonstrate how the company’s “Trekker” system works.

People took turns putting on the specially-equipped backpack used to capture the trail images and walking a short distance on the trails leading form the Pantoll parking lot.

The system employs 15 lenses mounted in what looks like a soccer ball above the backpack. The lenses provide a full-circle view of the surrounding terrain.

Photos taken every 2.5 seconds as the operator walks are later stitched together to form the 360-degree view.

Two global positioning systems built into the camera contraption also assist engineers with calculating routes.

Job-seeking hikers need not apply. Google uses its own employees to walk the trails.

“They’re very fit individuals who are familiar with the technology,” said Deanna Yick, manager of Google’s Street View program.

Google’s mapping technology has generated privacy concerns. Yick countered that Tuesday by saying the company’s engineers obscure faces or license plates captured by the cameras.

Some also have looked askance at state parks partnering with companies, out of fear it could lead to privatizing public spaces. Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has been particularly vocal about that concern.

But Ed Sheffield, the senator’s district director, said Tuesday at Mount Tam that the Trekker program isn’t cause for concern.

“I don’t see something like this working against state parks,” Sheffield said.

The initial roll-out of the Trekker program includes 10 state parks, three state beaches and one state reserve in Marin County and along Monterey Bay. They include Angel Island State Park, Samuel P. Taylor State Park and China Camp State Park.

Also included at Mount Tamalpais are Boot Jack, Camp Eastwood, Matt Davis, Sierra, Steep Ravine, TCC and Troop 80 trails and campsites.

Officials say they plan to expand the program to other state parks, including, possibly, into Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

“I think we’d be crazy not to partner with them (Google),” said John Laird, secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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