Can’t Travel Yet? Why Not Time-Travel?

Can’t Travel Yet? Why Not Time-Travel?
Brooklyn Bridge, NYC, at dusk,

This Google experiment already in the public domain will allow you to travel back into time to your favourite city

Prannay Pathak
November 10 , 2020
04 Min Read

I may be what they call an old soul. Cringeworthy though the term may be, I am no doubt persuaded by Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese’s films to try and find ways to go back to the boroughs of New York City. Graham Greene’s description of the Brighton of the ’30s and Joyce’s wanderings through Dublin make me pine for events whose places and eras I am several times removed from.

Read: These Remote Islands Are Using Gaming Tech to Make Remote Tourism Livelier


Time to hoard up all those vintage pictures you have: A picture taken in 1920 in Paris' Rue de Valence by Eugene Atget

However, with the AQI well over 700 in the national capital, time-travel now seems more of a necessity than a romantic whimsy. I am often inclined to believe the crazy temporal shifts in Interstellar seemed even more incredible than they were because of the heavy dust-storms at the beginning. Pollution and environmental degradation are probably the greatest reason why most of us dream of retreating into the past now. Whatever may the reason be—a kind of a solution seems to have arrived in us time-travel loyalists’ midst. And it is a new AI-based toolset/platform called re (pronounced ‘return’), created by Google Research.

A street-view of Chelsea, Manhattan, as seen on rǝ
Sparing you the technical ackamarackus, re is being developed as a tool promising both an enriching ‘time-travel’ experience for those of us routinely drunk on nostalgia and a dynamic repository aiding the work of researchers and policymakers. Through the open-source, 3D map-style layout, one will be able to visualize how a certain street in their city has changed over time, to greater degrees as more visual evidence is incorporated within the editor.

One can look at city maps both from bird’s-eye and pedestrian POVs. The buildings you will see materialising currently are all created from historical fire insurance maps—a valuable source of knowledge as regards the ages of buildings, their sizes, roof shapes etc. The slider at the top (refer to the image above) can be used to watch the transition of a certain neighbourhood over time.

Read: Appwatch: Ancient Earth

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A post shared by Gorgeous New York (@gorgeous_newyork) on Oct 23, 2020 at 5:49pm PDT

However, since the platform uses historical imagery for its digital reconstruction, you wouldn’t really be able to just search for a random year and place and find yourself in front of a historical building. Only a few city neighbourhoods are available at present, most of them in the US, but they’re good enough to indicate the potential of the experiment. We tested out the interface and the controls and navigation has scope for further improvement.

The open-source format allows anybody with relevant resources such as photographs to integrate them within the system. Any piece of valuable detail in those photographs can be semantically parsed and used to reconstruct the missing details of a building. The developers intend to even recreate the insides of buildings and public spaces under this project.

So, what are you waiting for? Reach into the attic and empty out the shoeboxes. Time travel might just be possible.


Over at Running Reality, we are working on building out maps of historic streets but also changing national borders, changing shorelines, battles, and people See some of what we have mapped for Indian history at runningrealityorg/?search=india#01/01/1860&2257210,8834920&zoom=12
Garth Henning November 11 , 2020

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