Even before Google decided to document Australia's hard-to-get-to natural wonders with its all-terrain Street View backpack cameras, Matt McClelland was documenting bushwalks and bushfires with his own 360-degree camera rig.
A former scout leader, McClelland, 40, says he made the "EmuView" device because the bushwalking community in his state of NSW had for a long time "been given incorrect or woefully inadequate information about walking tracks".
When leading scouts through national parks, he found there just wasn't enough information available for them "to do good walks". So he set down to work on his own solution in his garage.
The rig he built has four cameras, a small computer, and a GPS device housed in a 3D-printed cube. Like Google Trekker, the Street View device the internet giant recently started to use in Australia to augment its maps, it is mounted on a pole that extends from McClelland's backpack. A 300-gram battery carried in the backpack powers the unit.
The device takes photographs from all four cameras every 5 to 10 metres. Once a walk is complete the stunning images are downloaded and processed on a desktop computer, where they are stitched together and faces blurred manually unless people request they be shown. Then they are uploaded to several websites linked to McClelland's business wildwalks.com. Much like Google's Street View, it lets you virtually travel along a trail as if you were there.
McClelland says people often came up to him on walks with "very positive" views on his work.
"Everybody assumes I'm from Google and gets very excited and wants to be in the photographs," he says.
"I hope that as we provide more quality and easy-to-access information people will get out and explore these places more and do so in a safer, more enjoyable way."
Already he says he has heard from people with disabilities and older folk who use the EmuView images to explore walks they could not access in person.
He built the hardware himself with help from Andy Rehak, a software developer in Thailand he has never met. Together they've developed most of the systems for processing, organising and displaying the images online.
So far McClelland, who lives in Sydney's northern suburb of Hornsby backing onto the bush, has used EmuView on several hundred kilometres of track and is still adding more. As well as documenting The Six Foot Track, a 45-kilometre trail stretching across the Blue Mountains from near Katoomba to Jenolan Caves, he has also captured the destruction caused by the bushfires in the Blue Mountains last year. The Charlotte Pass to Mount Kosciuszko bushwalking track, and walks in the Berowra Valley and Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park have also been documented.
McClelland said the imagery helped people who are scared of heights answer "Will I be able to cross that bridge?" before deciding to embark on a specific bushwalk. It also helped others work out the location of campsites, vegetation types and terrain characteristics for better planning.
McClelland now plans to build a new version of the device with six cameras to fill a gap at the top of the imagery, currently displayed as a black square.
He also has an iPhone app for wildwalks.com and runs two other websites: playfulpossum.com, to help parents find nearby playgrounds, and bushwalk.com, a forum connecting bushwalkers.
He works part-time on the ventures, making money by selling bushwalking e-books and displaying Google ads on the sites.
While he can't afford the time to document other areas of the country, he says friends were planning on doing a walk with EmuView in Tasmania next year.
At the end of the day, McClelland said his passion was getting more people out and enjoying the bush.
"The end goal is to see these places in the community continue to be protected," he said.
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