Summer is travel season, but also a time of high airfares and, for many, tight budgets. If you can't get to the great sites of the world in person, Google's new World Wonders Project can get you pretty close.
Launched today, the project is a mashup of photos, YouTube videos, Google Earth 3D models and Google Street View panoramas. Brief write-ups on the locations round out the presentation.
World Wonders focuses heavily on buildings, from the Daigo-ji Temple in Kyoto to the Old City of Salamanca in Spain to the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn. But it also features a handful of natural wonders, including Kakadu National Park in Australia and Yosemite Park in California.
The initial selection is definitely lopsided. It seems that no spot in Italy or Japan was missed; each country has about 20 entries. But the continent of South America gets just three entries, all in Brazil. And the site completely misses Africa, which has a few wonders of its own.
While you can actually navigate through the stupendous but not-so-famous Royal Palace at Caserta in Italy using Street View, the same tool provides just one blurry, far-off panarama of all Jerusalem. The Street View portion of the Kakadu National Park section provides just a dull stretch of dirt road, but the photo and video sections are inspiring.
The Palace of Versailles is one of the showpieces. You could spend an hour or more virtually walking about in Street View, flying around the site in 3D maps, watching the videos and perusing photos. Media includes what Google calls "featured" photos and videos, such as Getty images and a documentary film on Versailles as well as user-submitted photos and videos.
The quality of the latter runs the gamut, from true documentaries to shaky clips. Outside Diamantina, Brazil, an American tourist leans over a cliff to view a waterfall that tumbles about 400 feet down and exclaims "Whoa, s---!" when he realizes how precariously he's perched. [ Three Cameras that Kick Your Smartphone's Butt ]
Though the quality is a bit uneven, World Wonders already has some amazing entries, with plans to continue growing. Browsing the multimedia, interactive setup and selection of media Google has assembled is much more fun than cobbling the information together in piecemeal searches. And you get to travel around the world without jet lag.