Virtually There

Virtual tourism has been booming since the advent of Google maps, Bing maps, Street View, Map Jack, and similar web services. Always wanted to visit the Niagara falls? Type 43.080°N, 79.071°W into your geo browser and off you go. Couldn't afford the ticket to Egypt, but still want to see the pyramids? Type "Giza" and zoom in. The Eiffel tower? Let Google fly you there for free: 48º 51' 32 N, 002º 17' 45 E Voilà! Virtual tourism is a resource-preserving, cheap, and extremely fast way to travel the world. You can zip from one landmark to the next, even if they are continents apart, without spending a single cent and without releasing a single carbon atom into the atmosphere.

On top of that you get a very unique view of the places you visit, namely a bird's eye view, which is not what you normally see as a tourist. For example, viewing London from several hundred feet up in the air gives you a singular perspective of traffic arteries, city planning, and zoning. But of course, it's not quite like being there. Even diving into the Google street view of Piccadilly circus, although an interesting experience, just doesn't compare to the immersion of actually being there. The noisiness of the place, the constant drizzle, the occasional businessman navigating through throngs of tourists, the diversions offered by cafés, pubs, and souvenir shops… all that is missing. And to be frank, the virtual pyramids on Google Earth aren't quite as awe inspiring as the originals.

But what am I complaining about? Virtual map technology is awesome enough. It's just a few years old and it has already changed the world. Of course, we had geographic information systems before Google Earth, but these were lame by comparison. Just frozen pixels for geeky administrators. Now everybody is geo-coding, geo-tracking, geo-tagging and the recent explosion of mobile devices with built-in GPS has certainly accelerated this trend. Instead of: "Can you tell me on what side of Westminster Abbey you are?", you ask: "Can you give me your long/lat?" and let your mobile phone guide you to the meeting point. Mobile GPS provide convenience, control and the promise that you will never have to ask for directions.

One recent afternoon, I had the luxury of getting bored with my programming work, so I decided to divert myself with geo-surfing on Google Earth. Instead of virtual travel to new exotic places, I decided to zoom into a location that I knew very well: my native town of Wuppertal in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. I should say that I haven't lived in Wuppertal for twenty years and I visit the place only occasionally. But I soon found that not much had changed since the day of my departure. The streets, buildings, and sights conveyed by Google maps looked all very familiar to me. Diving deeper into Street View, I found that even many of the old shops were still there, though they might have changed owners in the meantime. It's hard to believe, but minor details like post boxes, telephone booths, and advertising columns were still at the same place where I remembered them.

This caused a peculiar kind of deja-vu experience. I wanted to explore it further, so I began a virtual walk through Wuppertal following the street view camera points. After some random moves, I had an idea. What better walk to take than my old way to school? Then, after starting off from my previous home, I soon had the feeling that I am travelling not only through virtual space, but also through virtual time. Every part of this undistinguished, unremarkable path, every street corner, every turn seemed to trigger some memory. Here I found myself walking through the park with the old chestnut trees, where we collected chestnuts when we were kids. There was the old villa with that odd oriel window, the bus station where I waited for the school bus, the mini mart where mum sent us shopping groceries.

It turned out to be the most amazing virtual journey I had ever taken. Every turn of the street revealed a familiar sight and stories were connected to many of them. I came across the wire mesh fenced play area where I lost and won my first table tennis battles, the one were I once got beaten up by the older kids. I passed through the grounds of the closed down factory that my brother combed through in search of abandoned treasures. Old factories were the most wonderful sites to explore. This particular one was gone now. Nothing of it was left in Google street view. When approached my old school, I crossed the allotments where we once picked pears and apples from the trees. I went through the sweeping lawns of the school campus and remembered all the wonderful days I had spent there, summer and winter, from grade five to grade thirteen. Wow! Thank you Google, for this virtual walk. I had to end it there, because I still had work to do, but with all those neural pathways activated in my brain, it was almost like a real journey in space and time.