Google’s Street View is coming indoors. But are business owners on board?

James McConnell outside Zolo
Photo by Steve Weishampel

People who try to claim they weren’t fascinated by Google Street View when it debuted in 2007 are kidding themselves. The groundbreaking service gave users 360-degree views of about every street in the country and revolutionized the process of going places.

Google’s recently been rolling out the same concept indoors, so users can camp at their computers and click around the interiors of restaurants, hotels and other spaces. The service, which Google calls Business Photos, provides hyper-real images of the inside of commercial spaces. But while the photos are crystal clear, James McConnell says business owners don’t always see the benefits as clearly.

“One challenge that we encounter in this,” he says, “is just getting people to slow down enough to listen to what we have to offer.”

McConnell owns Business View Photo, the only fully certified-by-Google photography company in Boulder. Sitting on the patio of Boulder’s Zolo Grill prior to photographing the restaurant, McConnell explains a process that’s part art and part science.

McConnell creates a 360-degree image by setting up a tripod and taking photos every 90 degrees with a wideangle lens. But each 90-degree area actually gets three photos taken of it.

“So basically we’re over-exposing one, we’re perfectly exposing one and we’re under-exposing another,” he says. “That’s called bracketing.”

The purpose of bracketing isn’t to pick the best photo out of the three. It’s to generate the best image by using all three, generating high dynamic range, or HDR, photos.

“For instance, in here,” he says, gesturing around Zolo’s bright patio, where he’s about to start shooting, “something that’s got a longer exposure, the windows, are really gonna wash out, but then you’ll be able to get detail in the shadows. Well, then you do a really short exposure, you’ll be able to see out the windows, but this is going to be really black. Then that software will kind of use it all. So you’ll be able to see out the windows and you’ll be able to see in the shadows.”

The result: Photos that look better than real life.

“It creates this almost hyper-realistic [image], but just barely,” he says. “It’s very realistic, but it’s just a little bit nicer looking than real. Which is awesome.”

A screenshot of Zolo from Google Business Photos | Big Red F/Google Business Photos

McConnell, who has been a photographer for more than 20 years, says he’s learned to find ways to lead people around on a virtual tour.

“We figure there’s some psychology involved, for sure,” he says.

But while McConnell and Business View Photo’s other photographer, Anya Yurenya, have been practicing psychology, they’re also getting a few lessons in sales. McConnell says lack of awareness is the biggest obstacle for his business.

“We don’t really consider ourselves salespeople,” he says, “but one of the things we have to do is go out and educate, because nobody understands the importance, or even that this exists.”

McConnell says his company has worked with restaurants, hotels, clothing stores and niche businesses.

“There’s a company in Louisville, it’s called Classic Cabinets and Design,” he says. “It’s a beautiful showroom. … It’s just gorgeous, the way they have this whole setup. So we shot a virtual tour of their showroom, and I think it can totally change their business.”

One of McConnell’s biggest clients isn’t setting its sights that high. But the Big Red F restaurant group, which includes Zolo, all Jax locations, El Centro, Bitter Bar and others, is willing to take a shot at improving customer turnout, says Big Red F Director of Operations John Bachman.

“We saw it as a real opportunity to give the guests a little glimpse into our facilities and see what they’re like,” he says of the virtual tours, which are being implemented at all Big Red F locations.

Bachman says photo tours could be helpful as more potential customers access Big Red F’s restaurants’ information through mobile devices. But, he says, the tours aren’t the kind of marketing that shows definite results.

“Can I quantify it? Can I say there are people out there that there’s been a call to action because of this photo? I don’t think you can,” he says. “So much of marketing is untrackable. There’s really no way to get a non-subjective answer.”

Other Boulder restaurants don’t appear to feel much urgency. Tahona Tequila Bistro responded to an email by saying it hadn’t looked into the service, and Paul Nashak, a managing partner of the Mountain Sun restaurants, says the brewpub franchise hasn’t made Google’s Business Photos a priority or followed up on a free, basic version of the photo service, which Vine Street Pub in Denver got five years ago.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he says. “If we had more time, we would seek it out now. Perhaps we’ll seek it out in the future.”

In about 20 minutes, McConnell has snapped his way around Zolo, and he’s ready to get back to the computer and stitch the photos together into a seamless tour. Then it’s back to raising awareness, he says.

“Ultimately, we want to reach out and just let people know it exists,” he says, “because most people don’t.”

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