A digital agency that fell in love with the outdoors, combined with General Motors’ sixth generation Isuzu KB bakkie, led to the development of an interactive website that maps South African trails in the same way that Google has mapped the streets. The Isuzu Trail View website could become off-road enthusiasts’ new best friend
The offices of the digital agency behind the Isuzu Trail View website are not, at first glance, a comfort zone for an outdoorsman.
With manicured spaces, beautiful abstract art installations and a casual yet corporate feel, this is not the kind of place you would expect to find a group of 4×4 enthusiasts.
And yet it is. Native’s “Head of Inventions” Levon Rivers, recently spoke to us about the Trail View project – how it began, what it was like to get off the ground, and where Native and General Motors want to go with the project.
It doesn’t take an engineer to decipher that this man loves the outdoors – the look on his face the moment the topic of Namibia and The Put Foot Rally comes up is a dead giveaway.
But why an interactive, digital map for an industry that, by its very nature, plays out away from the digital sphere?
Rivers explains that the company tries to create products that will add value to people’s lives, such as the e-reader platform bookly for Mxit, for which Native won ‘Most Innovative App’ at MTN’ App Of The Year Awards in September.
The Trail View site, www.isuzutrailview.co.za, is a product that has been a long time in coming for the South African market.
It allows off-road enthusiasts – both amateur and expert – to explore trails before or while embarking on them. With ideas for the development of an application for download not entirely out of the question, the website is currently the only platform for the interactive off-road map.
What it already allows off-roaders to do is delve into the trail they have always wanted to tackle – from the comfort of their own home.
The benefits are multiple. Users can prepare themselves for the trail mentally, especially if they are beginners. They can also get tips and hints in the form of photographs and video clips, uploaded both by experts on the Isuzu Trail View team, The Isuzu Off Road Academy, and by other users (more on that later).
And, much like in a video game, those who are not yet able to tackle the trail of their choice – for financial reasons or otherwise – can go through it step by step, their dream more within reach than ever before.
The exposure alone for the many trails in SA is a welcome development.
So how does it work?
Once you click onto the trail of your choice, you can either view the trail as a bird’s-eye map, or in the same way that Google allows one to view the streets of cities and towns all over the world.
The Trail View was literally captured one metre at a time in an Isuzu KB extended cab bakkie, and allows you to travel the trail before embarking on it.
Trail View provides a 360-degree view of the trail as it progresses, and because thecamera was mounted on top of an Isuzu KB, viewers also get an idea of the grade of the obstacles as the virtual bakkie goes over them on their screen.
Throughout the view of the trail, GPS coordinates are updated in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, which means you can “screenshot” and share a specific obstacle or spot on the trail.
Viewers can share a screenshot from any part of the route on social media platforms, and they can also add their own media to the site.
Upload a photograph of your off-roader lifting its wheel in an axle twister, a video of it all going wrong at a water crossing, or just a few hints for drivers to come when you find a part of the route that gets washed away in summer, or is particularly difficult for a 4×4 without lockers. You can also add obstacles and interesting observations as points of interest along the route.
In the view, filters can be used so that you see only the information you want. So, if you don’t care to see other users’ photos, only tips and videos from the professionals will be shown, or none at all.
So far, the company has mapped Berakah, De Wildt, Hennops, Moolmanshoek (Visierskerf and Langesnek), Boegoeberg and Leeuwenboschfontein, capturing each trail’s unique character and the obstacles that make
them so exciting. There’s also an information section for each of the trails on the site.
How was it done?
The camera with which the company has been capturing the trails was especially developed for the purpose by Native and a German-based company, DIY-Streetview. It has six cameras, which together record 30 megapixels of J-PEG images to produce a panorama image of 7500 x 3750 pixels.
The camera takes burst shots at intervals of three seconds, and covers about 90% of its surroundings (with the only blank spot directly below the camera).
It has a built-in GPS receiver, which records the co-ordinates for each set of images as well as the direction in which the camera was facing at the time. It runs on a 12 Volt direct current, powered by a battery or the Isuzu’s 12 V power socket, and is controlled by remote control from inside the car. In total, the camera gear is worth about R90 000.
The gadget had to be safely mounted on top of an Isuzu KB. This was the most difficult part of the project. They worked with a local welder to build the roof attachment, which had to take the weight of the camera gear as well as keep it stable and as isolated as possible from the rugged terrain. In the end, it worked better than expected.
The centre mast supporting the camera was so rugged that it survived hitting a tree branch. The mast was then shortened to avoid natural obstacles, which was possible because of the camera’s incredibly wide angle.
The roof rails to which the mast is attached can take up to 300kg of weight each and absorb much of the shock coming from the rough terrain.
Vibration was, understandably, the biggest concern – no one wants to watch shaky, blurry footage of an outdoor trail.
The suction cups were adjusted until they were as stable as possible, and the suspension of the Isuzu itself was heavily relied on. But thanks in part to the mount and to the weather – which allowed quick shutter speeds – the trail mapping has been a success so far.
The mapping is done mostly in four-hour stints because of the life of the battery and SD cards. The trail data is then downloaded after each day and plugged into the Streetview software built for them.
In the end, the continuous recording meant that the team had too much footage, and some had to be cut out. The crew at Native also had to modify the German software somewhat, such as minimising the size of the footage to accommodate viewers using lower bandwidth.
The team of mostly city slickers, accompanied by Dynamic Driving’s Grant McLeary and the owners of some of the trails, were overwhelmed by the hospitality of 4×4 enthusiasts. They were often invited to stay at trails, with home cooked meals “on the house”. Many of the owners got involved in the mapping and went out of their way (as one would expect of off-roaders) to make the team feel right at home.
At Moolmanshoek, Willie Nel and the horse guides went along on the route, and the horses can be seen ahead of the camera in many places.
At Boegoeberg, owner Sybrie de Beer’s three-legged Jack Russell, Jasper, headed up the trail and became the mascot of Boegoeberg – en route and online. Jasper ran up every obstacle, leading the way without ever tiring of the team’s slow pace.
The mapmakers also got carried away by the adventurous nature of the trails, and ended up leaving some “Easter eggs” in the footage for viewers to find. On one of the trails, for instance, there is a cowboy, nonchalantly standing next to the route.
Sometimes the crew and the Isuzu itself are visible – not always intentionally – and at one point there are real ostrich eggs hidden in the grass.
When you choose your route online, each trail has its own crest-like badge, drawn and developed by the creative team at Native. Much consideration went into each of these, and they show the character of the trail – something we off-roaders have long known exists.