Google couldn't have planned the encounter any better. While hiking a volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii as part of the company's effort to map national parks and remote public lands, Rob Pacheco came across a confused woman staring at her phone. When she asked Pacheco about the soccer-ball-size orb over his head, protruding from a metal arm sticking out of his backpack, he explained that it was a high-tech camera; he was shooting images of the wild terrain that would soon be viewable on Google Maps. "She said, 'Oh, my God, I'm sitting here with Google Maps trying to figure out where I am,' " Pacheco recalls. "She had a map, but she still needed help."
Soon Google's new Trekker program will come to the rescue. Its goal is twofold: to photograph some of the world's most remote regions, and to encourage people to visit them. The idea dates back to 2007, when the company launched the Street View arm of its mapping function by attaching rotating cameras to cars; it has since shot buildings, streets, and sites in 3,000 cities in 55 countries. Announced in 2012, Trekker extends that same concept to off-road spots. The company loans backpacks, each equipped with a 15-lens camera that snaps photos every 2.5 seconds, to hikers, who take to less-trodden trails. Google then stitches the results together to create panoramas of rarely seen parts of the planet. So far, Trekkers have visited places from Mount Fuji to the Grand Canyon to the Galapagos Islands.
"We want to remind people of the planet's amazing diversity and get them out there exploring," says Google product manager Evan Rapoport. "Trekker lets anyone get a feel for what it's like to walk through these places, which is a great know-before-you-go tool. Lots of people love hiking but want to know, 'What are these trails going to look like? What am I getting myself into? Is it safe?' Trekker lets us go to the magical places cars can't."
Google doesn't just pick any hiker or any location for mapping. It works with local tourism boards, nonprofits, and universities, which are able to easily obtain permits for filming on public land. Those outfits recruit locals to do the walking – but they've got to be in shape; the Trekker cameras weigh 40 pounds. Hikers also must stand upright and keep moving in the same direction at all times.
Based on some of the first images uploaded to Google Maps in March – sparkling waterfalls, lava-rock landscapes, and tucked-away beaches on Hawaii – Trekker photos may well change the way we look at far-flung landscapes. But the program may also serve a scientific purpose, allowing before-and-after shots of endangered locales or species; the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos is working with Google to learn more about invasive species that could damage plants or wildlife there.
Trekker will also help Google in its war with Apple Maps. Google Maps once had 81 million smartphone users, but after it was removed from iPhones last year, its audience shrank by 23 million. Rapoport acknowledges that the company's map function needs an edge. "As soon as you don't find something on a map service, you stop using it," says Rapoport. "You assume the coverage isn't there and don't trust the service as much. With this, you can trust it will always be where you want to go."
The program has detractors, mostly hard-core outdoors enthusiasts who worry that Google is exposing all their favorite haunts. (A typical comment on The Huffington Post: "What's the point of adventuring if you know what it's going to look like before you get there? All the secret places will be overrun by techno-geek nerds.") But Trekker has been eye-opening for those who've participated. Last summer, Chris Officer, a 30-year-old journalist and ex-Marine, photographed 500 miles of Florida seashore over six weeks. Walking up to 10 miles a day, he and a friend coped with blisters and alligators – but discovered gorgeous parts of their state. "It made me realize how many beautiful places there are to visit," Officer says. "I've been to six or seven places I'd never even heard of, like St. George Island. It felt good at the end of the day to kick off our shoes and drink a beer, but walking the beaches of Florida? You can't complain about that."