This position gives the smartphone an unimpeded view of the street but prevents the user from manipulating it.
I first used the Mapillary app on iPhone last fall, in August, and I uploaded one photo, of my arm, which I can’t delete from the website. I uploaded a couple more photos from a street in Roscoe Village in November.
This week, though, I uploaded 500 photos from a three mile journey on California and Milwaukee Avenues in Chicago – streets that no one else had photographed for the Mapillary street view service.
Mapillary is an open source (sort of) street view service, originally developed in Sweden, which allows the public to contribute photos taken with their smartphone app.
What’s “sort of” about Mapillary being open source is that it appears that the company owns the photos once you upload them. People are free to use the photos to edit OpenStreetMap, or publish elsewhere – for personal use only – with attribution that adheres to Creative Commons 4.0. People who want to use the photos in a commercial application must subscribe to a pay service.
Mounting an iPhone to a bicycle
I took the jump from contributing nothing to uploading a whole lot because I bought an iPhone mount for my bicycle. After months of research – okay, chalk it up to my being lazy and it being really cold outside – I settled on the DgRock Universal Bicycle Mount from Amazon for $9. I was perplexed that there was a gap in choices between this decent $9 product and the next group, hovering around $30-40.
After three days of use, I’m satisfied, despite limitations that are present in all mounts I surveyed. The DgRock mount is solid, barely moves even as the bike bounces along Chicago’s pothole-ridden streets, and securely holds the iPhone with a strong, spring-loaded grip. It’s universal in two ways: it holds nearly any smartphone (it probably can’t hold one with a screen 5″ or larger) and it attaches to most bicycle handlebars.
The first day I used the DgRock mount Mapillary complained with a red icon that it couldn’t get a proper fix on its location and therefore it wouldn’t start photographing. Fine, I was in downtown Chicago where connecting to GPS satellites can be hard. I figured the wifi positioning system that all smartphones and tablets use would suffice.
There are problems with the mount, but I think these apply to all bicycle smartphone mounts: When the phone is in position to take photos, meaning its horizontal and level to the ground, you can’t see the screen. That’s because the screen, mounted on the handlebars, is much lower than your eyes and faces vertically, instead of angled towards your face. The only way around this, I believe, is to either get an upright bicycle (like my WorkCycles Fr8) or an adjustable lens (I can’t find any).
This position allows the user to manipulate the smartphone but you cannot take street view-style images.
The possible position angles of the smartphone when held by the mount was my main concern as I was shopping on Amazon: The mount need to have the flexibility to position the smartphone so its rear camera could be level with the ground. Smartphone mounts, though, are made to put the device in a position to be used and viewed frequently by the bicycle rider – it was unclear if many of the other smartphone mounts could accommodate the street view angles requirement.
The DgRock has no issue moving the iPhone into the right position, as you can see in the photos from my journey (or scroll to the end). Its issue, though, is that you have to put the smartphone in “backwards” so that the claw covers up part of the screen. I call it an issue but it doesn’t disturb the mount’s primary purpose when using Mapillary – the phone still has a clear view of the street.
Even with an upright bike like mine, though, it’s difficult to see the screen. I believe that Mapillary can actually design its app to help overcome this physical limitation.
The Mapillary app has improved greatly since the first version. It allows you to delete bad or undesired photos before uploading, and it has a simpler interface to go from opening the app to making your own street view. There are a couple changes I think would improve the user experience and lead to more contributions.
I would like to be able to turn off the screen while using Mapillary to save battery life. I think that the screen could fade to black and a small white dot or halo appears frequently to remind you that it’s working. I’d also like it to chime when iOS throws the “low storage” warning. Otherwise I may be riding along, thinking Mapillary is capturing the street, when iOS had actually run out of storage 10 minutes ago.