Siberia or Japan? Expert players distinguish at first glance on Google Maps

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Siberia or Japan?  Expert players distinguish at first glance on Google Maps

An indistinct stretch of road bordered by trees, in a Google Maps Street View image, appeared on the screen. It could be anywhere from Tasmania to Texas.

“I think this is in the southern Philippines, on some stretch of a road that exists there,” Trevor Rainbolt said immediately, clicking on a spot on the world map less than 11 kilometers away from where the image was taken.

Then came a winding road through the mountains. Lake Tahoe? Siberia? “Looks like we’re in Switzerland now, unless it’s Japan. Yes, it has to be Japan, in that case,” Rainbolt said, correctly identifying the country.

Rainbolt has become the face of a rapidly growing community of geography fanatics around a game called GeoGuessr. The premise is simple: the player watches the screen of his computer or cell phone, is led to some corner of the planet by Google Street View, and has to guess, as quickly as possible, exactly where the image shows. The player can use the map controls to look at signs and move around cities, and try to identify geographic landmarks or get references based on language. The closer your guess is to the place shown in the image, the higher the number of points you receive.

To some, Rainbolt’s near-instant responses seem like sorcery. For him, they are simply the result of countless hours of practice and an insatiable thirst for geographical knowledge.

“I don’t think I’m a genius,” said Rainbolt, 23, who works as a video producer in Los Angeles. “That’s how it works with magicians. For a magician, the trick is easy, but for everyone else it’s a lot harder.”

For the casual gamer, looking at still images of country roads, Mediterranean hills, and rickshaw-lined streets can be calming, especially if there’s no deadline. But for competitors like Rainbolt, the pace is frenetic, and pinpointing a location can take just seconds — or even less.

Rainbolt is not at the top of the rankings of GeoGuessr players on the planet. The distinction apparently belongs to a Dutch teenager who uses the alias GeoStique or a French player known as Blinky. But since the beginning of this year, Rainbolt has been the standard bearer of GeoGuessr, thanks to his captivating social media posts, shared with his 820k followers on TikTok and other social media platforms.

Rainbolt appears dressed in hoodies and with dramatic classical music echoing as the soundtrack, and identifies countries after a very brief look at the sky or a stand of trees.

In some videos, he guesses the correct location after looking at a Street View image for just a tenth of a second, or black and white, or pixelated — or all three at once. In others, he appears blindfolded and guesses (correctly) the place based on someone else’s description of the image.

The videos that have generated the most astonishment are those in which Rainbolt uses his talent as a topographic detective to pinpoint exactly where music videos were filmed. In a video that went viral, he discovered the exact street in Nevada where a video was recorded showing a person driving a car with a capybara in the passenger seat. “If I ever get lost, I hope someone hires this guy to find me,” one Twitter user commented.

GeoGuessr was created in 2013 by a Swedish software engineer, Anton Wallén, who came up with the idea while traveling across the United States. Pioneering influencers like GeoWizard, a British YouTube video creator, helped promote the game. And the hobby gained popularity during the pandemic, when a multiplayer version called Battle Royale was introduced.

Rainbolt’s social media posts gave the game even more momentum. Last month, Rainbolt made a publicity stunt by doing a livestream with Ludwig Ahgren, who originally rose to fame on Twitch and now makes videos for three million YouTube viewers.

The GeoGuessr website has 40 million accounts, said Filip Antell, chief content officer for the Stockholm-based company that runs the game, which has 25 employees. Some of these users are subscribers who pay $2 a month to play an unlimited number of times. The revenue, Antell said, goes to pay developers and Google, which receives payment from the Swedish company for using its software.

Despite his knowledge of world geography, Rainbolt, who grew up in the US state of Arkansas, never left North America. But he has many travel destinations on his bucket list, including Laos and the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. People tell Rainbolt that his crush is kind of crazy. The most frequently asked question your friends ask you is “is this serious?”

He answers yes, and swears he never falsified the results of a video. Sometimes, Rainbolt misidentifies a country. Mistaking the United States and Canada or the Czech Republic and Slovakia are two common stumbling blocks, even among the best GeoGuessr players. And he admits he posts mostly his best moments on social media, not the occasional blunder.

How does he do?

The key, of course, is practice. Rainbolt first became interested in GeoGuessr during the pandemic, when he saw videos of other people playing it and began to take an interest in study guides prepared by geography lovers. He said he spent four to five hours a day studying, playing GeoGuessr over and over in specific countries in order to learn how to recognize the terrain and memorize landmarks like road signs and telephone poles, and the differences between them in different countries.

“To be honest, I haven’t had any social life this past year,” he said. “But it’s worth it, because it’s a lot of fun, and I love learning.”

Some of the main features Rainbolt uses to distinguish one country from another, he said, are the supports of road safety barriers; telephone poles; vehicle plates; the side of the road that cars travel on; and the color of the earth.

There are other clues if you know what to look for. Image quality matters – Google has captured images from different countries using different generations of cameras – as does the color of the car used to photograph the area. Seeing a white car in South America, for example, means that the image it took was taken in Peru, Bolivia or Chile, according to Rainbolt.

Lukas Zircher, 24, lives in Innsbruck, Austria, and became obsessed with GeoGuessr when he accidentally discovered one of Rainbolt’s Instagram posts. Zircher decided that he too wanted to become one of the best in the game.

“To become really, really good, you have to put in a lot of effort,” said Zircher, whose free time is now devoted to studying road safety barrier supports and memorizing the color of the land in South Africa. “I can recognize all African countries based on a few images, but I’m still a long way from being good – I always confuse Eastern European countries.”

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