Senior Research Scientist for Search Quality at Google Daniel M. Russell poses with a virtual reality headset for a portrait in his backyard on July 20, 2020, in Palo Alto, Calif. He knows exactly how to use the search engine to take your virtual vacation to the next level. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Virtual museums and glitchy webcams got you down? There is only so much you can do online to make you feel like you’re in that glorious place you were supposed to be visiting IRL.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, we would have hardly considered cobbling together a virtual trip to Hawaii, let alone nearby Monterey; but here we are, madly clicking on seal cams and mixing our fifth mai tai.
What if there was a way to up your game, to feel like you’re there, walking through the Gaudis in Barcelona or snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef?
To find out, we called Palo Alto’s Daniel M. Russell, a senior research scientist for search quality at Google — and a travel buff. Russell is widely considered one of the world’s foremost search experts, and he taught us a few key ways to use technologies within Google Earth and Google Maps to take our shelter-in-place vacays to the next level.
There are even travel tidbits in his new book, “The Joy of Search: A Google Insider’s Guide to Going Beyond the Basics,” (MIT Press; $30). The book was born out of his SearchReSearch blog and free online Power Searching course, which has been completed by more than four million people. The volume reveals how to become a great online researcher using advanced techniques — putting search terms in double quotes, using the operator (*) — to answer all kinds of questions, like “Why are the coasts so different?” and “What was the original design for Mount Rushmore?”
Daniel M. Russell’s new book reveals advanced search techniques to make us all expert online researchers. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
But Russell devotes a chapter of his book to things you notice while traveling. Here’s one: When you’re driving a rental car, how can you tell — without getting out of the car — which side the gas cap is on? Russell typed in [car dashboard fuel side] and found the answer: On your dashboard, there’s a triangle on the left or right side of the gas pump icon that indicates which the cap is on.
It’s fun fodder for when we get back into those rental cars. For now, though, we’ll be doing our traveling online.
“From a virtual travel point of view, you can visit a whole bunch of the world for free — and it’s very easy,” Russell says. “It can be really useful for family trip planning, too.”
Plan away! Here are four ways to take your virtual vacations to another level, courtesy of Russell:
Walk inside the White House: Sure, you can use Google Maps to check your neighbor’s lawn or traipse down the Champs-Élysées. But you can also use it to walk inside buildings. From Google Maps, type in the White House, D.C. Now, zoom in, so the White House gets big enough that you can see the lawn and other details. Click on the yellow Pegman in the bottom right corner and you’ll get a bunch of blue lines. Drag and drop him onto any of those lines. Boom! You’re in.
You can use Google Maps to walk inside buildings, including The White House. (GoogleMaps)
Hang out atop Half Dome: Despite its name, Google Street View, the technology in Google Maps and Google Earth that provides interactive panoramas from positions along streets, features a lot of non-street imagery, Russell says. Think trails, waterfalls, mountains. Always wanted to see the top of Half Dome? Type it into Google Maps. Now, zoom in. Click on Pegman. Drag him onto any of those lines. Voila. We like the winter shot with the snowy rocks and pink and purple sky.
Do Burning Man, without the heat: When you clicked on the Half Dome line, you likely also saw blue dots. Those are Photo Spheres, or interactive, scrollable, 360-degree images taken with a special camera or app. While Street View is one continuous path, Photo Squares are images that have been stitched together — and they can be in the middle of nowhere, Russell says. Type in Black Rock City, NV. Zoom in on the half circle until you see details. Click on Pegman. Pick a blue dot. Check out the art and sweaty people. Also try it with Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia. There are fewer blue dots, but we found fish and coral — no scuba tank required.
There’s more to Google Maps’ Street View than pavement. You can summit mountains, go inside buildings or dive deep at the Great Barrier Reef. (GoogleMaps)
And finally, take a better virtual museum tour — anywhere: You just need Cardboard. Google’s inexpensive virtual reality headset ($9 and up) enhances 360-degree virtual tours, including the one of Mexico City’s Castillo de Chapultepec, which houses the Museo Nacional de Historia. Load the YouVisit app on your smartphone, stick it inside the box, then look through the box’s lenses and suddenly you’re on the castle grounds, exploring crystal clear exhibit halls without a glitch.