(Photo source: Twitter)
Trevor Rainbolt has a special talent for being able to look at any image on Google Maps and pinpoint where it was taken with astonishing speed and accuracy. He can do so after only looking at the image for 0.1 seconds, five times in a row, and even if he is looking at images from two separate countries at once. Rainbolt can identify a country using only half of a distorted image, or an image that has been scrambled into pieces. He can look at only the trees. Or only the grass. Or only the sky. Sometimes, he can even name a country while blindfolded, just by having someone else describe the dirt.
Rainbolt is one of the top GeoGuessr players in the world, if not the best, by his own admission. The game, in which people take a look at an auto-generated image from Google Street View and then click the area of the world in which they suspect it was taken, is almost a decade old, but it has taken on new life thanks in large part to the 23-year-old Rainbolt, whose TikTok follower count has grown to over 1.2 million as he tries to figure out ways to one-up himself. His videos have begun to receive the parody treatment, and he has started to even get recognized in public, though people refer to him only as the “GeoGuessr guy,” he said.
Amid the scams, profiteering, and depressing headlines that have overtaken the internet, Rainbolt feels like a breath of fresh air: an online magician who amazes and delights from the middle of his apartment in Los Angeles using nothing but a Google Street View image, a camera, and his brain. Rainbolt is a true 21st century celebrity: almost instantly famous, innately online, and insanely good at one obscure internet trick. Thirteen months ago, Rainbolt would have struggled to name 100 countries. Geography had never been top of mind. But almost from the jump, he felt the world open up when he played, if from inside his apartment, and he wanted to do almost nothing else. He means that almost literally. By the time we spoke, Rainbolt estimated he had played nearly 10,000 times.
To the untrained eye, Rainbolt’s Google Maps trick looks like nothing short of genius. But Rainbolt said he was horrible at first and that it instead boiled down to some combination of repetition and pattern recognition. ”I really fully believe anyone is able to do this,” he said.The trick to the game lies less in memorizing every inch of the globe and more in the mundane differences that make countries distinct. When he plays, Rainbolt looks closely, for example, at a road’s painted lines (double yellow outer lines are common in the U.K. and Singapore) and for any words with distinctive characters (like Ü, common in Hungary). Rainbolt tries to identify distinct license plates (New York, New Jersey, and Alaska have yellow plates) and is particularly interested in countries’ poles. Poles that are “black, orange, black, orange” on the bottom are “very Thai,” he said, while Hungary has “hole-y poles.” Particularities of how and when the photo was taken can prove useful as well. Street View only used black cars in three South American countries, and a glitch showing a view of the Google Car is rare in the U.S. but occurs more often in Canada. The quality of the photo, which helps deduce which “generation” of Google Maps it’s associated with, can also help narrow down the list of possible countries as well. Sometimes, Rainbolt sports details that are giveaways, like a distinct type of car in Nigeria that served as something like a “police escort” to Google cars when they were there.
By learning to identify a few distinct features—say, a telephone pole and a license plate—Rainbolt was able to quickly start whittling down the list of potential answers and guessing with increased confidence and speed. While he isn’t the kind of person who naturally memorizes flashcards—”that sounds super boring to me,” he said—he’s realized he could benefit from the occasional bit of rote memorization as he’s gotten deeper into the game, like when he wanted to learn every street sign in Germany. From early on, he played the game alongside various reference sheets that helped him differentiate, for example, telephone poles or the distinct characters in different languages. He also has memorized the probability of each company popping up in a given GeoGuessr round, though he says it’s not that helpful at the moment. The resources were developed by the “pioneers of the GeoGuessr community,” which he speaks of the way modern NBA players speak of Magic Johnson. “They laid the foundation of [for example] learning the poles, giving me the resources to learn everything,” he said. After enough games though, Rainbolt started playing off instinct and “vibes.” “When you play the game so much, you get such an intuition and such a vibe of what certain regions of the world look like that things become very much second nature and a sixth sense,” he said. He started to realize that he could tell he had seen a particular shade of grass in South Africa and particular types of soil in Nigeria, though he couldn’t name either. Trusting his intuition allows him to move quicker. “I feel like the more I think the more I suck,” he said.
To a novice, Rainbolt seems like he couldn’t be better. But he still believes he has room to grow. He struggles to differentiate areas of urban Europe (”I'm a lot better at rural Europe”) and could get better at Russia (“Russia is the downfall of me”). He watches top GeoGuessr players like the French player known as Blinky with awe. “I will never be as good as them,” he said. “The difference between the top five players and the top 15 players is a very, very, very high margin.” What differentiates the top players is consistency and specificity of answers. “I can have good days, they have good days every day,” he said. As he explained, while Rainbolt can quickly recognize the country of Montenegro, the best players can instantly recognize not just the country but the town and region. “They have every road in North Macedonia memorized. They're learning the roads in Russia,” he said. For all the time he’s dedicated to better understanding the world, Rainbolt has yet to travel outside the country, and his knowledge of geography is limited to what is available on Google Street View. (Rainbolt said with frustration, for example, that many areas of Africa and the Middle East remain unavailable.)
The game, however, has given him a new appreciation for international cultures and geography. He finds himself taken aback by images of limestone hills and the natural beauty of less appreciated countries. “It makes me literally want nothing more than to leave the house and just go to these countries,” he said. Laos in particular has become a source of fascination for Rainbolt. He has spent his non-game time the last month trying to learn everything about the country’s history. “No one ever talks about this country. But it's one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” he said. “Having an appreciation for things like that—that most people maybe wouldn't have ever recognized—is, I think, the beauty of the game.”He’s also started to find more practical uses of his newly developed skill, becoming something of an internet sleuth. One fan recently reached out and told him his father had recently passed away and that he wanted to recreate an image of him in New York City in honor of him. After not too long, Rainbolt was able to find the exact spot on the exact street that the man’s late father had taken a photo from in 1996. “Being able to do this and help people like that is a clear sense of fulfillment that I think is amazing,” he said.He recently quit his full-time job after realizing that he no longer wanted to dedicate his time to anything except becoming a better GeoGuessr player. “I really want to just put all my effort into this because I think I have something special here, and I think this community can really grow into something really unique,” he said. Rainbolt isn’t sure if he will ever run out of ways to one-up his viral stunts. But just like any other sport, he has been surprised by the ability of GeoGuessr players to adapt and innovate. “Every video is like, wait, I have to do something better than the last video,” he said. “And that's kind of tiring. But it's also kind of exciting.”