Google's 'Street View' service, which gives users the ability to take a virtual tour of cities mapped from thousands of specially-taken photographs, has launched today in the UK.

The service, which will initially launch in 25 British cities including Manchester, London and Belfast, was originally unveiled in May 2007, and has since been expanded to nine countries, including Japan, Australia, France and Spain, as well as the US where it launched. Images were taken by specially modified Google Street View cars, which are fitted with 360-degree photographic equipment, and are estimated to have travelled 22,369 miles in the process of mapping the UK cities available to view today.

Accessible via Google Maps, Street View captures not only the landmarks of the cities covered; it also gives a snapshot of everyday life, with other cars and pedestrians photographed in the same detail as the streets around them. This has led to concerns over whether the mapping constitutes an invasion of privacy, and even allegations that it may aid potential criminals to plan crimes.

As an acknowledgement of these concerns, Google has employed special techniques to obscure faces and number-plates in the images.

The service has also partnered with a number of UK organisations to provide extra content, including Visit Britain, and the Tate, all of whom have contributed suggestions to a series of Street View galleries highlighting some of the country's tourist hotspots.

As a cheeky sidenote to the launch, Google have hidden popular children's book character Wally from Martin Handford's 'Where's Wally?' series somewhere in today's release, challenging users of the site to find the forgetful traveller, who is wearing his trademark jumper, walking stick and red and white striped bobble hat.

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