As the "Google Maps" car with the roof-mounted, 360-degree digital camera passed Duke's Bar on Michigan Street NE last fall, a man was standing in the doorway. He wore light blue shorts, but his back was turned to the camera.
Now, anybody with Internet access can see him standing there as they travel the virtual streets of Grand Rapids and its suburbs. Viewers might also notice the churchgoers heading into Immanuel Lutheran Church on Michigan Street. Or they can spot cars parked outside the Parkway Tropics strip club on Lake Michigan Drive NW and a sedan parked along the west wall of Cina-Mini Two on Bridge Street NW.
Google launched "Street View" in Grand Rapids, Lansing and 28 other U.S. cities this week, allowing users to take virtual trips down digital roads with views that take them to the front doors of homes and businesses. In Grand Rapids, the coverage stretches from Cutlerville north to Plainfield Avenue and from Jenison east to beyond East Grand Rapids. In some U.S. regions, the American Civil Liberties Union has complained Google caught people in embarrassing moments -- women sunbathing topless, men leaving strip clubs. Also, some fear Street View could be used to plan burglaries.
Google officials say they are aware of the potential for invading privacy, which is why they have safeguards. The resolution of the photographs is low enough to make it difficult, or impossible, to make out license plates. They've blurred faces. And, anybody who believes they've been captured in an embarrassing situation can request their image, or even their home, be removed. "Privacy is something we do take very seriously," said Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo. Google launched Street View in May 2007 in five cities -- New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Denver -- and it has spread to more than 100 cities since. Street View hit Detroit last fall. In Grand Rapids, a driver familiar with the area toured the streets last fall in a mid-sized car as a 360-degree camera mounted on the roof soaked up the scenes. Cars are frozen making left turns, pedestrians are taking walks, dogs are in yards. On Estelle Drive SE in East Grand Rapids, moms are watching children play in a driveway. As he sat at the bar at Duke's, 700 Michigan St. NE, Gary Howes, 64, tried to make out the Street View photograph of the man standing in the doorway. He could not. He also didn't see a need for a virtual tour of the city. "I know where my house is, I know where this place is, and I know where the Legion is," he said. "That's all I need to know. My wife takes care of everything else."
Bartender Stacey Hoffman, however, sees a purpose. "It's kind of cool, especially for people new to the area," she said. "I certainly don't think it's an invasion of privacy. It's just a public street; it's not like you're taking a picture in their house." Google officials say it's more than just for the curious. Among its uses: Drivers looking for directions on Google can search for landmarks, like the 7-Eleven on the corner, instead of relying only on street signs. A roofer told Google he uses it to see how big a ladder he'll need before he heads out on a job, Filadelfo said.
Real estate agents are linking it to their Web sites so clients can check out potential new neighborhoods. Filadelfo said she used it while apartment hunting before moving to the San Francisco area. She checked if apartments had garages, if the streets looked busy, and if there were parks and supermarkets nearby, she said.