Plain Text: Google Sightseeing

Alex Turnbull has been to America only once. He spent 36 hours in New York City two years ago on a business trip. But today the Web designer for kilt company Scotweb in Edinburgh, Scotland, travels to the U.S. every single day.

Turnbull, 28, his younger brother James, and their office mate Olly have invented an exotic and growing Internet activity called Google Sightseeing. Their motto: "Why Bother Seeing the World for Real?" In just the past few weeks, they have visited the resplendent Mormon temple in Bethesda, Md., experienced the parched Black Rock desert of Nevada where the Burning Man festival is held annually and enjoyed the glittering lights of Las Vegas. All from outer space, and at the same time, from the comfort of their cubicles back in Scotland.

How are these virtual expeditions possible? Last October, Google acquired Keyhole, a Mountain View, Calif.-based startup that lets Internet users view and manipulate geographic images collected from satellites and airplanes. Earlier this month, Google integrated the feature into its mapping service. When users enter a physical address into Google, they have the option of seeing a detailed satellite image of the location. Try it out at google.com/maps and check out the color of your own roof. Understandably, privacy-concerned Internet observers reacted with anxiety about the potential for snooping. Alex and his Scottish crew responded a bit differently. They decided to take a trip to America.

"As soon as it happened, I started looking at places in America I'd like to go," Alex says. He viewed satellite pictures of Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. Then his brother James suggested turning this fascination with Google Maps into a regular blog. They set it up on James' Web site and started traveling.

They began with the obvious American tourist destinations: Disney World, the Hollywood sign and the Golden Gate Bridge. That was the easy stuff. Exploring further, Alex became enthralled by an aerial image of the St. Louis Arch--he pronounces it "St. Louiey"--and the massive shadow it lays onto the grounds of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park. And he marveled at the Rainbow Bridge, the world's longest natural bridge, which stretches over surreal, rocky terrain in Utah. "It's completely real, which is why it's so exciting," Alex says.

Word of the Google Sightseeing project quickly spread around the net. A link was posted to del.icio.us, a site where Web users share their favorite bookmarks. Even Google itself noticed and appreciated the effort, linking to it on its corporate blog. In just a few days, thousands of Web surfers had crashed the Google Sightseeing site, and the Turnbulls had to find a more robust Web hosting service. When the site came back online a few days later, readers began sending in their own suggestions. "We were in awe of the stuff people were sending in," Alex says. "We didn't know what to look for, and that made this much more interesting."

Thanks to the submissions, visitors to the site were treated to a photo of the three-mile long ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. They also got a good shot of the infamous Nevada military installation known as Area 51. Alex also posted a satellite image of a field in Bunker Hill, Ill., where a guy named Dave had carved his first name in giant letters--perhaps the world's largest graffiti tag.

Today, the Google Sightseeing site draws 15,000 virtual tourists a day. The boys from Edinburgh post many images in thematic groups: major sports stadiums, and rocket facilities such as the Space Shuttle launch pad at Cape Canaveral. They've got hundreds of reader submitted photos queued up, waiting to make the cut. Alex is particularly excited about a satellite image of the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles, where the "Desperate Housewives" neighborhood is actually visible in the photo.

Alex is beginning to feel well-traveled. "It's total escapism for us," he says. But it's not a replacement for grabbing the passport and getting on a plane. In fact, it's feeding his itch to travel the world. But first, he has more countries to explore. Google is planning to expand the Keyhole service to other countries, beginning with the U.K. Turnbull's readers are already packing their bags.