Google Maps Platform

How two developers reached new heights with Google Maps Platform

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Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from David Schmidt, co-creator of Zugspitze360.com, a website that uses custom Street View imagery and Google Maps Platform to provide virtual tours up to the peak of Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany.

My brother Phil and I have always enjoyed photography. The technological nature of photography combined with the opportunity to be creative has always fascinated us. Since we both work professionally with web technology, it was natural that Street View and 360-degree photos, in general, became an interest for us. With great enthusiasm and curiosity we both took 360-degree photos here and there in our spare time and posted them online. One day, Phil came up with the idea of documenting the climb up the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain.

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Phil and I had hiked up the summit in the past, but it wasn’t immediately clear what his vision entailed. With its almost 10,000-foot peak, getting up there isn’t easy, especially with all the photography equipment required to document our trek. The way to the summit includes difficult terrain like a gorge, the Höllentalklamm, and a glacier, the Höllentalferner–as if six miles and 6,500 feet in altitude wasn’t enough already. But somehow he got me to agree to this seemingly impossible feat. 

Planning to map Germany’s tallest peak
When we went into planning, we identified so many seemingly unsolvable questions. How many panoramas would be needed to make the hike virtually feasible? How much time would be required to take all the photos? Where to rest and recharge? It was clear from the beginning that the final project would be a web app, open for everybody interested to use. After all, that’s what we already knew how to do. 

With some further estimates, and some luck in terms of weather, we were confident enough to start the endeavor. Equipped with cameras, tripods, GPS devices and all the required hiking gear, we tirelessly documented the climb in stages. Numerous hikers passed by and were probably thinking ‘what the heck are these two guys doing?’.

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After two weeks in the mountains–exhausted from hiking thousands of feet of elevation–we thought we had mastered this arduous adventure by coming home with gigabytes of footage. But reviewing the material revealed that the task of bringing the imagery online would probably be as ambitious as taking it. Phil spent weeks stitching together the single images, while I did the research of finding the best way to put the panoramas online.

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Bringing ZUGSPITZE 360° to life with Google Maps Platform
From past experience I knew that Google Maps Platform provided a robust collection of APIs that might be helpful, including hosting the 360-degree photos. With our vast amount and size of imagery we knew we needed a scalable and cost effective means of hosting the data.

To upload the panoramas we initially used the Street View App, then later the Street View Publish API. This allowed us to transfer not only the binary data but also the metadata, including the actual latitude/longitude of the panoramas and how they connect to each other.

Our custom-built front-end uses the Google Maps Platform Maps Javascript API to pull and display the panoramas, as one is used to seeing in typical Street View imagery. The Maps Javascript API provides a very well documented way in doing so. To find the matching IDs of the uploaded panoramas, we built several little helper tools that surface the information. Our intent was to not just allow users to navigate between panoramas but also jump to predetermined highlights of the tour.

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We found it was actually fairly difficult to match the panoramas to their precise position. Our GPS recordings were inaccurate and at times more like spider webs rather than the expected exact location, due to the steep cliffs and narrow gorges. We needed the data for positioning the panoramas at their respective location in the map and also for providing the track. That's where the Roads API came to play. Its features enabled us to snap the recorded GPS coordinates to the closest known path, and we made a few manual corrections here and there to ensure complete accuracy.

In addition to the tour, ZUGSPITZE 360° also provides information about the trail and its special features, enriched with more photos and the approximate time and distance needed to reach that point. We also include many valuable suggestions on what to consider and prepare before the ascent, should one of our users attempt the hike themselves–such as a map that tells a user how far Zugspitze is away from an origin point and which path to take from there to the trailhead where they can begin their hike. We accomplished this with the help of the Directions API. We even provide a Google Earth-compatible KMZ or alternate GPX file that users can download to a GPS device to ensure they won’t get lost.

And last but not least, we wanted to enable our visitors to share their anticipation. We used the Street View Static API to make sure that shared links of the tour included the respective panoramic view in a shareable format.

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Thanks to Google Maps Platform, we were able to realize our vision. What started as a rather simple idea at first evolved into a complex project with all kinds of beneficiaries. We had no idea how many people would actually use the project in one way or another. The most obvious group of people, of course, were like-minded people with a similar background in technology or photography, but we’ve heard from so many others, as well. Fathers who, so far, took their family to the Höllentalangerhütte, dreaming of continuing to the summit. Budding mountaineers who were unsure which specific equipment is needed for the route. Passionate alpinists, as well as climbing educators, who know the route and use our project to point out dangers to their followers. However, we were most touched by the kind words of seniors who had gone the route decades ago and couldn’t any longer because of their advanced age or their health.

We certainly learned a lot. We’re glad that we didn’t give up due to the immense effort and we do hope that ZUGSPITZE 360° can continue to provide valuable service to many mountain enthusiasts.

For more information on Google Maps Platform, visit our website.