Pre-Quake Christchurch: Street View Time Capsule + VR Uses
Updated: a day ago
I love to call Christchurch home. It's a work in progress - but that means there's always something new.
In 2020 I started work at UC on the QuakeBox Take 2 project. A big part of my job became relating to the stories of those who lived through the earthquakes - hard, since I lived in Dunedin until 2017. I couldn't relate it to my few memories of pre-quake Christchurch nor what I'd come to know of the city since 2018. Wanting to know more, I turned to the internet to improve my understanding of the changes in the city.
Google Maps Street View was my favourite tool for conceptualising this change. The Street View 360˚ imagery has been captured regularly around New Zealand streets since 2007. That's pretty cool in itself, but even cooler is that with the Time Machine feature, you can select an image, and view the same street in different years.
This leads to some incredible visual contrasts. I don't need to tell you when I can show you - in the slider below are images taken from the corner of Cathedral Square and Colombo Street. The first two are taken facing south, the final four are facing north.
[photo descriptions: The first two images are screenshots from 360˚ images viewed in Google Maps Street View feature. The first image is of the Christ Church Cathedral in 2007, standing intact. There is a green lawn around it and clearly accessible pedestrian areas. The second image is the same view in 2018, where the Cathedral is in severe disrepair, propped up by scaffolding and without a steeple. It is surrounded by fencing, weeds and cones.
The following four images are from the same position, but facing north towards the old post office on Colombo street. The first image is from 2007 and the building and street are intact and undamaged. The next image is from 2015, where the previous building has been demolished and the ground is covered in only concrete and piles of dirt. There are only a few buildings in the background. The next image is from 2017, where the new library Tūranga is being built. Both sides of the street are surrounded in fencing, and there is only framing and scaffolding on the site. The final image is taken in 2018, and shows a nearly fully built library building surrounded by fencing and construction equipment]
Here's the interactive version:
With the ability to move down the streets, this is a perfect tool to conceptualise the city's change. I recommend taking a wander down Colombo street, using the mouse to move around the image and the arrows to navigate the streets.
It's almost like taking a walk in 2007! Chuck on your skinny jeans and vans.
I would love to recommend this as a flawless application to view pre-quake Christchurch.
However this method lacks reliable usability in that it constantly switches back and forth between years (if there is no imagery available for the chosen year). This breaks any immersion like the kind we enjoy with the most recent images, or 360˚ tours that Google promotes on Google Earth.
There's an explanation for the gaps - As various parts of the city (especially the CBD) have been blocked from traffic across the years, the Google Street View car wouldn't have been able to get everywhere in each run.
It's pretty annoying. One click you'll be in 2007 on Cashel street, the next 2015, then 2010, and then it can be impossible to find the original 2007 images. Often you know that an old panorama exists on a street but have trouble finding the right spot more than once.
My question from this - and I'm yet to find an answer after a year - how much of the city was photographed before 2011?
Next, would it be possible to create a version of the Street View environment that only shows you pre-quake Street View photos?
What sort of uses could we find for this data and imagery if it were effectively organised and accessible?
My other odd job is in a youth tech centre. We are lucky enough to have our own HTC Vive VR setup. I really love teaching how to use the setup via Google Earth VR - an immersive way to experience the already fantastic Google Earth. I love that we always want to check out our own house, the thing we see the most often in real life!
The Google Earth application also offers Street View - VR is perfect for viewing 360˚ images as it follows the direction you're facing.
In this video, a user demonstrates the Google Earth VR app and its ease of navigation. To move, you just point the controller and move in the street view environment.
As my love of exploring the digital Christchurch grew, I found myself in the Street View spheres all over town.
Street View on Google Earth VR doesn't offer Time Machine capabilities - but it displays the most recent image taken for a particular spot. Since many streets are closed now.. well, take a look.
[video description: This is a recording of using a VR headset to view Street View via Google Earth VR. The video starts above Durham Street, facing towards the Container Mall (2014-2018). A spherical shape appears and the view changes to a Street View 360˚ image taken in 2019. Riverside Markets and the Justice Precinct are visible for a few 'steps' as the point of view moves northwards up Oxford Terrace. After two changes, the Street View image changes to an older image where the Container Mall is set up, and the Justice Precinct is still under construction. Turning back and moving southwards, after a few clicks the view changes again to 2019. The user exits the Street View image and is again looking at the city from above, facing the cranes above the Justice Precinct construction site]
You know the phrase “That's not a bug, that's a feature!”? That's my experience of Christchurch using GE VR. I spent a while checking out different areas that are closed to traffic. Below are the more interesting recordings I took.
This one is of River Road, which hasn't been photographed since 2007.
[video description: it's 1am so this will be short. This is a recording of Google Earth VR from above Christchurch. The view starts from above the Avon River, and zooms in on a grassed area. The user enters a Street View image of River Road in Christchurch. The images on this street are from 2007 and show a street fully lined with houses and cars. When the user reaches the end of the street and moves onto Stanmore Road, they rotate and the view shows the street as it looks today, a grassed area dotted with trees. The road is closed and blocked with a fence]
This last one shows another angle I hadn't really thought about. I've listened to countless stories of post-quake living in quake hit areas, but hadn't really seen them. These 2012 images of Avondale shows the long cleanup period that the eastern suburbs went through.
Fences, red stickers, flooding, portaloos... All of which is now gone and turned to green fields (which as a new arrival, I mistook for a park).
[video description: a walkaround of Avondale in 2012 in VR. zzzzzz. ]
I have more recordings on my channel, but if you own a VR device I recommend you check out some areas that interest you!
These bug/features offer a taste of a larger concept where we could combine the wealth of pre-quake imagery into a fully digital pre-quake environment.
What would it mean to you to be able to stroll the streets of pre-earthquake Christchurch in VR? For long-time residents and new arrivals alike, I believe this could be a wonderful opportunity to experience the city that once was.