Virtual Time Travel is now possible, Sort of

Sometime in the late 1990s I read a science fiction book about time travel (Timemaster by Robert L. Forward). The details are hazy and the reviews of the book aren’t kind, but that’s okay because it’s what I remember (or mis-remember) about the book that matters today. In the book time travel was made possible via wormholes—the actual story (which was kind of weak) was basically just a vehicle to talk about how wormholes (in theory) make interstellar travel and then time travel possible. However one could only travel back in time to the point that the wormholes were created. This is one of those explanations as to why we haven’t seen time travelers yet. You can only travel back to the start of time travel, not the start of time. I like this concept, partially because it’s a great analogy for the world we live in today.

I document a lot of my life on Facebook, partially to share it with friends and family, and partially to preserve it for future reference—mostly to preserve it for future, easy access. That’s actually a big part of why I blog as well. I use Shoegnome all the time to look-up all sorts of things I found interesting at some point in the past.  So thanks to Facebook I can easily go back to review all the stuff I’ve done since the summer of 2009 (and for architecture related content Shoegnome can send me back to July 11th, 2010). It’s virtual time travel.

I think about how different it is for people growing up today. I was 28 years 6 months and 14 days old when I joined Facebook (thanks WolframAlpha); which to me is the start of my virtual time travel capacity. My daughters, who are now 3 and 5 both have their entire lives up there. And that makes me think about the access to history they’ll have. I know bits about my family’s history—vague memories from my youth, stories from my parents and brothers from before I was born, some second hand stories about my grandparents, and a fair number of hard to access old photos, though not much from before World War II; but most of it is a dark and fading haze. And little of it comes with commentary. If I want to learn more I need to pester my parents or get my 96-year-old Grandmother to reminisce about days long past. My daughters will have more options. They will have mountains of primary sources to dig through, both about themselves and their parents. Assuming access remains (and I don’t see why it won’t), my daughters will be able to, at perhaps any point in the future, travel back in time through my old Facebook posts, Tweets, blog posts, etc. They’ll be able to see and read what their mom and I were like when we were younger. When my daughters are in their 20s and 30s, they’ll be able to encounter long gone versions of their parents from a similar age. I know to some people this is frightening and eery, but I love it. Maybe this is because I grew up in Connecticut and was surrounded by our early American history. The town I grew up in was founded in 1633 and I spent many afternoons volunteering at the local Historical Society, typing up old hand written notes from long dead residents of the town. Every day I drove past homes there were one, two, and three hundred years old. The potential historical record of Facebook, LinkedIN, etc. is exactly the same to me. Except more detailed, more personal, and more enlightening to someone trying to understand their direct ancestors and historical context.

While Facebook and other social media sites allow that for our personal lives, Google is attempting that for the rest of the world. Already via the magic of web searches it’s easy to find articles from the past and all sorts of historical information. But there’s more.

Explore the Streets of the World like it’s 2007. Or maybe 2009, 2011, 2012…

Google has added an amazing update to Google Maps for architects. Well two cool new features (check the bottom of the post for the other). Google Street View now allows you to travel back to 2007.

The above images are what Google Street View has of my new house. My old house in St. Paul, Minnesota has four different images from 2007-2012, so the progression of time is even more evident. It’s interesting to see what’s changed at both properties during the documented time period. I’ll definitely be visiting my old house virtually for years to see how it continues to develop. I especially want to watch the tree I planted in the front yard grow, or perhaps get chopped down.

Google Street View and Google Maps (and Bing Maps) have become indispensable tools for me as an architect. So much of my work is remote, so I rely on these services to help me understand sites and existing conditions. And now I can add historical views as well. This will be great to understand changes. For instance I know now that the trellis by the street at my new house was built sometime between 2008 and 2011. As a curious home owner, that’s good to know. This information will only get more useful with time. Right now we only have about seven years of information, and clearly for some locations only a few measly data points. But if Google keeps this time travel option, and continues to document reality, we will eventually have decades worth of images to sift through. With this (and eventually other similar tools) at our disposal, when we are learning about a new property for a client, we’ll be able to tell things like how well the property was kept up over time, how old certain changes (or damage) might be, whether things disappeared…

Oh and as each image is taken at a different time of day and year, all these aggregated images also gives us a sense of how the seasons affect individual properties. Bonus thought: this will also make great before and after opportunities (eventually) for remodels and new construction. Either by finding old images or waiting for new ones to be added. Cool stuff. Bonus, bonus thought: need more documentation about a site? Think about all those images and videos we and our clients take of ourselves in our homes. I bet there’s a bunch of useful data there too. Or is that going too far and starting to make you feel uneasy? Just wait until all those photos contain depth data as well. It’s coming.

So what do you think? How will you use the ability to time travel with Google Street View to add value to your architectural services?

Want more news about Augmented and Altered Reality craziness from Google? Check out these other recent advances which will affect how architects practice:

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  1. Keith July 10, 2014
  2. Justus August 3, 2014

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