By Cecilia Kang
The Washington Post
ARLINGTON, Va. — The walk through Arlington National Cemetery on a beautiful October day was being captured by Google for anyone to experience with a few keystrokes or the swipe of a smartphone screen.
Google on Sunday began its project to map the cemetery by collecting millions of photos and stitching them together to re-create the feeling of strolling the iconic burial ground of presidents and soldiers.
Online users will be able to zoom in close enough to read some grave markers. Or zoom out for panoramas of rolling hills dotted with thousands of white headstones. Or experience a 360-degree view of the resting place of America's service members.
Google's hired walker moved briskly among a light stream of visitors, carrying a backpack supporting 15 cameras encased in a green metal sphere the size of a basketball hovering above his head — a contraption known as a Trekker.
As he strolled by Section 27, where the first soldier was buried at Arlington in 1864, he stood out, a high-tech intruder among the neatly lined burial rows, where change is seen only in the new gravestones and the passing of the seasons.
"It's the Google guys again," said Bill Rose, visiting with his wife and 17-year-old daughter from North Salt Lake City, Utah. He said he wasn't surprised to see someone wearing the company's logos mapping a treasured landmark.
Cemetery officials hope the project will draw greater attention to one of the nation's most-visited destinations, particularly the areas of the cemetery that are often overlooked.
"It's great for people who may not be able to visit in person," Rose said. "Being at Arlington gives you the whole perspective of why we are Americans."
The effort is part of Google's quest to map every nook and cranny of the Earth, an endeavor that feeds the company's online advertising cash machine. With its car-mounted cameras, Google has captured images of just about every developed nation. It has gone to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and used a tricycle-mounted camera to navigate the stalls of Boston's Faneuil Hall market.
Its global picture-snapping frenzy has brought charges of privacy violations in some countries. Google said it will edit out or blur the faces of people captured in photos at the cemetery.
The images will be available to the public in May for the cemetery's 150th anniversary, honoring the day when Pvt. William Christman became the first soldier buried there, in Section 27.
"This is a tool to explore the cemetery from your home. It's not the same as being here, of course, but for so many who can't afford or are physically incapable of visiting, this is a great tool to get a feel for Arlington and explore its rich history," said Jennifer Lynch, a spokeswoman for the cemetery.
Arlington National Cemetery provides online access to photos of its 400,000 above- and below-ground burial sites. Google's images will be less granular and will capture only the gravestones close to where its Trekker passes, the company said. With 27 to 30 burials a day at the cemetery, Google won't be able to display new burials and seasonal changes. Lynch said cemetery officials will work with Google on updates.
But combined with the images already used in its Street View software and those from a car that snapped photos along with the Trekker carried by Patrick Fennie on Sunday, users will eventually be able to feel as if they are walking to the Tomb of the Unknowns and up the stairs to the grave site of President John F. Kennedy.
"We want it to be a consistent and immersive experience so that it feels like you are there," said Deanna Yick, a Google spokeswoman.
For relatives and friends of service members buried there, visiting the cemetery can be an important part of grieving, experts say.
After Ami Neiberger-Miller's brother died in Iraq in 2007, she went to visit his grave in Section 60 every week. Now, the Purcellville, Va., resident visits every two months.
"When you talk to bereavement experts, they say that the people who are able to incorporate their lost ones in their lives in some way helps them to move forward. For some people it can be visiting the burial sites," said Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization that assists the families who have lost a member in the military.
Some family members worry that the sites of relatives are neglected, with few visitors. So project staff members regularly check on the sites of service members whose families can't visit Arlington but want someone to deliver flowers or just physically be there.
"Google is only capturing a moment in time, so it's not like a family member can see how the site looks like on a given day," Neiberger-Miller said. "But it sounds like a great way for the many people who can't visit to get some sense of what it's like there."
Outside the Welcome Center, Carl and Rose Knight were planning their route around the 624-acre grounds. The Phoenix couple had saved for months to visit the cemetery for their 29th wedding anniversary.
Rose Knight, 54, used to work at Fort Meade and regularly visited Arlington, her favorite destination in the region because of the "quiet and the pride."
They are spending some of their retirement savings on the visit, the first for Carl Knight.
Carl, a retired Army master sergeant, spotted the Google car.
"I can tell you that every veteran would love to see Arlington," he said. Looking toward the car, he added: "If that is another way, I look forward to it. I'm just getting started today."