PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Gregg Matthews fancies himself a lumbering “Star Wars” character as he treks along a popular Florida beach. He wears stout hiking sandals and uses ski poles for balance as he shoulders a 40-pound backpack, which is a blue orb with 15 cameras extending over his head.
“It attracts a lot of attention,” Matthews said, laughing, as he trod Panama City Beach.
He and his walking partner, Chris Officer, are on contract with Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency, to gather images for Google Maps. All told, they have walked more than 200 miles of Florida beachfront, each logging up to 7.5 miles a day while lugging the camera orb. Each camera on the gizmo snaps a shot every 2.5 seconds as they walk.
Their quest: to create panoramic views of every Florida beach similar to Google's Street View, which has taken photos of everything from ordinary homes and businesses to landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.
Visit Florida has partnered with Google in the effort to map all 825 miles of Florida's beaches. For good reason: Tourism is Florida's top industry, accounting for 91.4 million visitors last year and $71.8 billion in spending, which employs more than 1million people in the state.
The project began in late July when Matthews and Officer began at the Alabama-Florida border. Eventually, another camera team will take over, aiming to finish in November. The photos should be posted next spring.
Google is doing a similar project on the trails of the Grand Canyon. But the Florida project is the first large-scale beach mapping.
It's worth it, said Matthews, who said he shed 15 pounds in the first three weeks.
“It is enough to cover expenses, but mostly it is fun and probably cheaper than a gym,” he told inquisitive sunbathers as he passed them on Panama City Beach.
For Florida, the idea is that tourists will be more drawn to beaches they can see online, step by step — the turquoise waters, the white sand.
Matthews said he thinks more of the people who will never set foot on a Florida beach.
“This is a way to bring those experiences to people who for whatever reason — health, money, whatever — will never be able to get here.”
He's heard concerns from beachgoers nervous about having their bikini-clad bodies captured on Google. After all, Street View once caught a Miami woman standing naked in her front yard.
But Matthews said any faces will be too blurry to recognize.
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