Spotlight on the Google Trekker
The Google Trekker is a revolutionary backpack used to map out previously uncharted terrains like unknown wilderness trails, hidden caves, and places of wonder. The backpack features a 360-degree camera that provides stunning panoramic views of its surroundings. The attention given to the original Google Trekker was a mix of praise over its technology and criticism around its size, weight, and overall clunkiness. The redesigned Trekker is faring much better. It’s ideal for cartographers and explorers who want to share their traveling experiences in a more riveting way while also educating others about the world around them. Most importantly, the backpack is finally easy to put on and take off — opening the Trekker up for use in nearly any voyage.
Elliot Ortiz, Creative Lead
Britt Jensen, Strategist
Dan Harden, Principal Designer
Whipsaw: What was the specific design challenge Google presented you with?
Harden: Google has been mapping and photographing much of the planet with their car rooftop-mounted system, but it is limited by road access. Our challenge was to help them package their amazing mapping technology into an improved portable unit that could be worn like a backpack in order to reach and document places where there are no roads. An original product existed in small numbers, proving the idea worked, but it was big and heavy and nearly impossible to wear for more than a few minutes. We needed to rethink the whole system in order to make it smaller, lighter, more rugged, better looking, cheaper, and more comfortable to use. The goal was to design a unit that would better enable mapping and documenting anywhere on Earth, bringing massive benefits to education, science and research.
Jensen: The original Trekker wasn’t something any of us had ever even interacted with, so we spent an afternoon at the Google Maps office to get a sense of the current product, the potential use cases, and Google’s intent for this new-and-improved version before we signed off on the redesign. The moment we got our hands on the old Trekker, it was clear why it needed a redesign. The backpack stood at about four-feet tall, weighed over 50lbs., and was constructed of angular sheet metal. It was so heavy, in fact, that we couldn’t put it on or take it off without assistance—an immediate red flag for usability.
Ortiz: It also took quite a bit of effort just to trudge around the office, so it was hard to imagine adventuring to remote places without feeling weighed down for hours. With that in mind, Google asked us to make the Trekker more portable, approachable and usable, while still using some of the off-the-shelf parts like LIDARS to keep costs down.
Jensen: Since this is such a strange and unique device, there were no comparable products to look at for precedent. When there aren’t analogous products in the market, your best bet is to spend time understanding use cases. The Trekker was intended for use on rugged outdoor trails as well as crowded indoor train stations and museums. The main design intent was to not draw attention or cause alarm with this massive backpack.
Ortiz: We got to work by sketching a variety of aesthetics around the device’s strange configuration of components. Luckily, Google has a really playful design language that helped us choose colors and rounded forms that felt friendly and approachable. We also prototyped some different weight distributions and spent time walking around the office with crazy contraptions made of plywood and PVC strapped onto ourselves to figure out what felt right ergonomically. One of the other design considerations was that this might not always be worn as a backpack and could be strapped to boats or ziplines for different perspectives when documenting the world. So we designed it with big handles and modular straps from a company that manufactures military-grade backpacks.
Harden: Physics, function and ergonomics drove most of our design thinking and logic. For example, the hi-def cameras needed to have 360 degree unobscured vision, so that meant they had to be above the user’s head. Two LIDAR glass cylinders (one scans the horizontal topographical plane and one scans the vertical plane) also needed to be positioned so the scans were not obscured by anything. The computer at the center was doing all the processing in real time and it got very hot which required a big exposed heat sink. Finally, two hot-swap batteries, the heaviest parts, were best positioned at the bottom in order to keep the overall center of gravity as low as possible which makes it easier to carry. All of these factors needed consideration and extensive design exploration.
Jensen: Well first off, it’s the only device out there that provides a high quality 360-degree image while also mapping its coordinates. Another differentiator is that you can’t buy the Trekker. It’s only available in a loan program that travelers can apply for in advance of their journeys. This means it’s accessible for everyone…not just wealthy adventurers.
Ortiz: Also, since its purpose is to populate unknown areas on Google Maps, the end result is that it captures images we can all enjoy. In this way, it inherently builds a sense of community—not just between fellow travelers but also between Google Maps users worldwide.
Harden: Trekker is a one-of-a-kind remarkable tool that reveals and celebrates the wonders of our planet. It also helps to spread knowledge about geography, cartography, travel, and Earth Sciences.
Jensen: There’s been a lot of positive feedback about the lighter weight and sleeker design that allows the Trekker to be used in a wider variety of locations for longer periods of time. There’s also been positive feedback on the quality of the image and the views of the cameras which involved a lot of careful placement and angling to ensure the cameras and LIDARS weren’t obscured by other parts of the product or by the user themselves. Google has also posted some firsthand user testimonials so people can get a sense of the different types of adventures you can bring the Trekker on. Rock Climber Tommy Caldwell said for example, ‘These 360-degree panoramic images are the closest thing I’ve ever witnessed to actually being thousands of feet up a vertical rock face—better than any video or photo.’ Allowing viewers to feel like they’re all getting to share the same original experience is a pretty amazing thing.
Ortiz: Combining seven cameras, two LIDARS, a couple of brick-sized batteries, and a high powered computer into a wearable device designed to travel into some of the most remote and rugged environments in the world. Yeah, I’d say that was all pretty unexpected and challenging. When presented with the raw components, I have to admit the team was a little concerned. How could this combination of components assemble into a cohesive object? After many full-scale architecture studies, we finally settled on an arrangement that was going to function well and felt like a compact workable design. The team then focused on the smaller details, like placing the camera array in a black band to obscure the lenses and make the device less overwhelming in a crowded environment. We also improved ergonomics by increasing the diameter and adjusting the angle of the top handles to aid in getting the device on and off. It was a great feeling to pull off such a complex design that can shed light on unknown corners of the Earth.