Why you should care

Because we all love Google Maps’ Street View technology, but it’s been lacking a full sensory experience … until now.

Google Maps is to our daily lives as batteries are to our smartphones, as milk is to a baby, as fuel is to a jetliner … OK, maybe I exaggerate, but some of us would be lost in the middle of the Mojave Desert on our way to Disneyland were it not for this free digital tool that we all love to love.

Google’s iconic service has grown to map live traffic conditions, (sometimes creepy) Street View and even the bottom of the ocean. But Google Maps is still missing a key layer: sound.

Amplifon, a European hearing-care company, heard the call and developed an innovative experiment that brings a 3-D sound experience to Google Street View. Imagine tuning into the cacophony of Midtown Manhattan while virtually touring the neighborhood or listening to water crash down Niagara Falls from the comfort of your couch. What this all means is that you could hear the corresponding sounds while you’re visually exploring a location via Street View.

Each sound file is given a latitude and longitude, and then the distance is calculated between the sound and where the user is “standing” on Street View.

Amplifon’s “Sounds of Street View” project hasn’t automatically added an audio layer to Street View. Instead, it’s developed a framework to let anyone with some coding experience add his or her own recordings to a location on a map hosted elsewhere. So with some inspiration, you could create an audio experience for a place you’ve visited and recorded; it’d be accessible on Street View. (The Sounds of Street View site is even soliciting user entries.)

If coding is not your cup of tea, the open-source project already features an example from Chicago, where someone captured the sounds of the city’s Buckingham Fountain landmark. You can hear the water from the fountain, people walking and the general bustle of the environment in this particular experience.

The Sounds of Street View technology was designed to mimic what it is actually like to stand in a specific location. Each sound file is given a corresponding latitude and longitude so it can be mapped — and then the distance is calculated between the sound and where the user is “standing” on Street View to replicate what it would sound like if you were in fact there. So if you pop on a pair of headphones for the full 3-D sound experience, things in front of you will sound clearer and louder, while noises “behind” you will be seem duller and more distant. Moreover, like surround sound in movie theaters, with stereo headphones, you’ll appropriately hear sounds taking place on the left in your left ear and sounds from the right in your right ear.

It’s an intriguing project to check out, especially when you consider what’s coming down the pipeline in the tech world. Oculus VR (the virtual reality headset company that Facebook paid $2 billion for earlier this year) recently unveiled a new prototype VR headset that reportedly has built-in headphones and 360-degree head tracking. If virtual reality tech becomes more mainstream, the way in which we explore the world through maps could change forever. Not only will you see places, but you’ll also hear them and feel like you’re actually there.

And if a trip to the Eiffel Tower in Paris is simply not in your travel budget, who knows? Maybe the next best thing will be savoring a virtual experience of being in France just by putting on a headset and navigating Street View. Baguette not included.

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