June 1, 2012 at 4:28 PM ET
Thinking about a trip to Jerusalem, Quebec City or Independence Hall in Philadelphia this summer? You could buy a bunch of guidebooks and travel magazines. Or you could fire up the computer and immerse yourself in these and other historic destinations through Google’s new World Wonders Project.
Launched on Thursday, the effort uses the company’s Street View technology to take armchair travelers to — and often inside — 132 cultural sites around the planet.
Like Street View, the system lets users navigate through destinations with the click of a mouse, moving forward and backward and panning 360 degrees along the way. Using the hand tool or on-screen compass, you can “walk” through the gardens of Versailles, amid ancient temples in Kyoto and along the waterfront in Cinque Terre, Italy.
You can even walk inside the ring of megaliths at Stonehenge, something you’re not allowed to do at the actual site.
To get those and other interior views, the company traded in its car-mounted camera system for a tricycle-based one that could navigate tighter spaces. You can occasionally see the shadow of the trike as you make your way around.
The project is managed under the auspices of the Google Cultural Institute and is a joint effort between the company, UNESCO, World Monuments Fund and other organizations. “World Wonders is part of our commitment to preserving culture online and making it accessible to everyone,” wrote project manager Melanie Blaschke on Google’s blog.
Meanwhile, as Googlers pedal the world’s monuments, other companies are also offering immersive travel experiences. In March, Nature Valley, the granola bar company, launched Trail View, which lets users “hike” more than 330 miles of trails in Grand Canyon, Great Smoky and Yellowstone national parks.
Like World Wonders, Trail View utilizes Street View’s immersive, panoramic technology, although it also goes a step further. Hit the Autoplay feature and your route will unroll in front of you, meaning you don’t have to lift a foot or a finger.
Both programs can be a little disorienting — people and vehicles appear out of nowhere in World Wonders while Autoplay images can be fuzzy in Trail View — but they do provide a glimpse of what to expect if you go to the various destinations.
They also raise the question of whether promoting such places online will lead to more visitation, leading to concerns about increased strain on already popular spots.
“I don’t see it as a problem,” said Bonnie Burnham, president of World Monuments Fund. “A virtual platform doesn’t necessarily deliver too many people to the same place at the same time. It’s a way of sharing information with people without necessarily having everybody there physically.”
As for those who do go, she added, “I’d like to think that people who have done a lot of homework through the information available on the Internet will be more attentive and more sensitive visitors and have a better experience when they get there.”
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.