Night Walk in Marseille: An immersive Google Maps experience
“Welcome, I’m glad you’re here…” is the sultry greeting spoken by Cristophe Perruchi, a french production designer and virtual tour guide, at the onset of Google’s enchanting Night Walk in Marseille. In this night-time tour of the creative Cours Julien neighborhood of Marseille, Google has combined their Google Maps Street View with the Google Knowledge Graph, as well as audio soundscapes, to curate an immersive and educational experience for both desktop and mobile.
When first embarking on Night Walk, the user is greeted by Cristophe’s narration along with convincingly realistic background noises. The audio soundscapes immediately takes center stage to the experience. The viewer also notices a figure ahead of them, later realized to be sound designer and storyteller Julie de Mur, who is another tour guide on the stroll. The viewer is presented with an expandable map in the bottom left corner of the screen that shows the full route of the tour as well as queues instructing the user on how to navigate the experience. It works almost identically to Google Maps Street View, so anyone who is familiar with maps can easily jump into the simulation.
Night Walk allows users to perform 3 different and distinct actions: follow the designated paths by clicking ahead with your cursor, drag around the screen for a 360 degree view (or on mobile, simply turn your phone in space to view in 360), and click on various “hot spots” to learn more information about a specific part of the tour. While the tour is primarily centered on the multitudes of street art and graffiti present in Cours Julien, it also touches on all areas of the city’s culture such as sports, music, film, literature, and cuisine. While Cristophe’s narration is the dominant form of storytelling, clicking on hot spots, which can be a YouTube video, google search result, panorama, or photo gallery, allows the user to learn more about subjects they find particularly interesting or ignore those they don’t particularly care for. There are 34 total hot spots the user can “collect”, adding a game-like element to the experience and giving users incentive to keep walking. While there is a main course that the tour follows, designated by a green line, users can also choose to follow a dotted line and go “off-course,” following whatever path they desire. More impatient users also have the ability to click locations on the map to get to where they want to be faster.
Night Walk is basically a more focused version of Maps, which, while an incredible tool to explore different corners of the globe, can be incredibly overwhelming for users. It also provides a nighttime view instead of Maps’ default daytime view, which contributes to the entirely different vibe the experience emanates. What is truly spectacular about Night Walk, however, has to be the audio component, which was adapted from Julie’s Promenades Sonores, a series of audio walks in and around Marseille. The first queue given in the simulation is that “Your Headphones Will Give You The Best Experience.” While VR technology such as Oculus or Google Cardboard blinds peripherals to give the most immersive experience, headphones block out all other noise to make this as immersive an experience as possible, without being virtual reality. With each move throughout the neighborhood, the soundscape changes to perfectly reflect the environment–a bustling corner filled with club go-ers is paired with their incessant chattering and laughter, while a quiet alley clothed with a large mural of a fat cat is coupled with city-quietness and a cheeky “meow” every so often. (The cat mural also blinks every now and then: a subtle reminder that this is a simulation, not real life.)
The interactive site was built with HTML5 and WebGL, as well as PANO2VR and CSS3 for the panoramic experiences. Additionally, users who are physically in Marseille can get an enhanced version on mobile that pulls in local data based on users’ location, utilizing their smartphone’s gyroscope and the Google Places API. The experience is available in both English and French.
While Night Walk in Marseille is mesmerizing and engaging as it is presently, it’s merely a preview of the future of virtual travel. Night Walks would be even more successful as a virtual reality experience, and an excellent opportunity to bring to light cultures or unknown neighborhoods to people who may never have the opportunity to visit themselves.
Thanks to Priyanka Ketkar for edits and feedback.