In 2006, Larry Strange experienced a debilitating spine injury that required surgery to fuse his C3-C5 vertebrae. The casualties of this surgery were neck mobility and Larry’s weekly tennis matches. To replace tennis and help with his rehabilitation, Strange took up hiking. (This comes into play later in the story.) The irony is that thirteen years later, Strange, in spite of his limited ability turn his neck, is putting Wilmington on the map (Google Maps to be specific) with his 360-degree photography.
How did this all come about? Strange has spent a career working in the tech sector, at various times for Microsoft and for himself as a tech entrepreneur. In his last stint at Microsoft, he served as Principal Enterprise Strategist. As such, he had was privy to the latest virtual reality technology that Microsoft was developing. While mesmerized by the fantasy universes and the possible gaming applications that appeared to him in his Microsoft HoloLens, Strange was more intrigued scenes which “gave people a sense of place in real or virtual world.” Microsoft photographed two scenes in their 360 view to demonstrate the capabilities: Rome, from a hot air balloon, and Manchu Pichu. “I remember putting on the goggles and being just blown away by the experience. It felt like I was there.” Strange is curious by nature. (He once became an Uber Driver for a week, just so he could understand how it worked from the driver side.) And so, after seeing these 360 views, he started a quest to not only understand how these images were created but also to come up with applications for them. Although Microsoft used real places in their demonstrations of their hardware, they were not interested in creating that type of content because they didn’t have the platform to use the images. Enter Google Street View.
Strange, an avid hiker since his spinal surgery, has led a group of area hikers on weekly hikes throughout Wilmington, the Brandywine Valley, and beyond for the last six years. (Full disclosure: I am one of those hikers.) For most of that period, Strange had been taking photographs at different points of interest along the hikes and posting them to Google as a way of sharing his adventures. Then, about two and a half years ago, after seeing the images of Rome and Manchu Pichu in his VR goggles, he bought both a 360 camera and a drone and started posting images using those technologies. Not limiting himself to outdoor shots, Strange took 360-degree photos inside local buildings such as The Arden Gild Hall and The Grand and added them to his growing Google portfolio. (As a Google contributor, Strange owns all his images). Soon after, he had an opportunity to work with MoonLoop Photography to capture a 360-degree view of the 76ers’ Field House in Wilmington and create a virtual tour for their website. His business, Unified Web Media (UWM), was born.
Along the way, Strange delved deeper into Google Maps and discovered how he could contribute even more content. He rigged a backpack that allowed him to take photos as he hiked, much as the Google Car takes their “street view” photos as they drive around cities and towns. Using this rig, Strange could add blue lines onto Google maps and add “street views” in places that the Google Car couldn’t go and therefore couldn’t document. Places like the boardwalks of New Jersey and the DuPont Experimental Station began to pay Strange to make sure they were represented by content on Google that was reliable and up to date. Strange saw how his prolific posting racked up millions of views on the Google platform. He wasn’t the only one who took notice. This September, Google invited Strange to The Street View Summit in London. It was a big deal; Google only invited 200 photographers worldwide to join in this event and bestowed on them the designation of “Trusted Street View Photographer.”
It proved to be the right moment as well. In 2019, Google Maps and Street View exceeded one billion active users for the first time. “This growth in image-based search is leading a quiet revolution in consumer behavior.” During the conference, Strange was able to network with Google and build on his knowledge to help businesses enhance their presence on this primary advertising platform/directory and deliver customers to their doors (virtual or otherwise). This is a boon to Wilmington businesses, in particular. With only 200 Trusted Street View Photographers worldwide, to have one situated in our city can have big ramifications in terms of drawing consumers to our city. Strange, who has spoken on visual technologies at Wilmington University and Philly Tech Week, is dedicated to taking what he has learned and turning it into learning opportunities for area businesses through a series of free workshops that will help business owners–regardless if they use the services of UWM.
As for those services, Unified Web Media offers them in three basic categories. First, UWM will make sure the Google Street View is up-to-date and stays that way. They also offer high-resolution, 360-degree imaging. Lastly, UWM can create privately hosted interactive virtual tours.
While it is easy to see how businesses could take it upon themselves to update their Google information without help, using Strange and his company has its advantages. UWM has invested in the latest technology which will not only serve customers now, but also in the future, as the technology advances, assure that customers will view these images at the highest possible resolution. This March, Strange flew to Florida to purchase a robotic panohead from the only dealer in this country. This robotic head attaches to a professional grade Nikon D850 camera which allows Strange to take dozens of overlapping photos which he then stitches together in PTGui (a dedicated photo-stitching program) and cleans up in either Photoshop or Lightroom. He then can take the stitched image and use it to create virtual tours with hotspots added for additional content. These images are enormous and take both computer power to manipulate them and a large space to store them. Strange, being the techno wizard that he is, is committed to updating the company’s technology as advances happen. Already he is on his third generation of 360-degree camera technology. “When people can see these images, they understand the power behind them.” Check them out on Unified Web Media website.
Strange will be offering the first of his free business workshops on Tuesday, November 12 from 10AM-12PM at Highlands Art Garage; 2003 W 17th St, Wilmington. (Other dates will follow.) Visit Unified Web Media to sign-up for their newsletter and see how you can harness existing technology to put your Wilmington business on the map.