The world is going digital. Pretty soon everything we experience might be a digital creation or representation. We already communicate virtually, shop online, and explore augmented realities through hand-held devices. Finding our way around the planet, and getting to know the people in it, is increasingly a technology-driven experience. So how does that affect our enjoyment of the world, and at what point do we lose touch with the physical stuff around us?
A couple months ago I attended XLab, a technology focused event hosted by the Society for Environmental Graphic Design. Aimed at discussing the role of emerging location-based technologies in the built environment, the one-day conference brought together design professionals, technology experts and artists currently exploring the way location services, like digital mapping and GPS applications, are changing the way we experience our surroundings.
The event focused mostly on the use of smart phones, like the iPhone and Android, in finding our way around. The Explorer, an iPhone and iPod application used at the American Museum of Natural History, uses indoor location technology to guide visitors through the museum’s exhibit halls. Kiyo Kubo, CEO of Spotlight Mobile who helped develop the app, showed how it helps visitors explore the museum on their own, and provides instant exhibit information. The museum has reported that most visitors have found the application extremely useful in helping them find their way while also making a better museum experience.
I recently joined the nearly half of Americans who now own a smart phone. Of these users, more than half rely on a location service on their phones to navigate. It’s a sharply growing trend. I enjoy having a bird’s-eye view of the world at my fingertips while wandering through unknown territory, but have always been a little skeptical about relying on the digital map. According to Collin Ellard, research psychologist at the University of Waterloo and author of the book You Are Here, who spoke at the XLab event, research suggests that such reliance on navigation devices could do more harm than good.
Ellard explained how other animals find their way around, which he has been studying in order to gain a better understanding of how humans do it. In one experiment, he tracked desert ants as they wandered from their nest in search of food, then instinctively made a direct line back to their home. He asserted that the ants must be internally tracking their direction and heading, always aware of their origin and current direction. Brain scans in humans have determined that we do something very similar.
The hippocampus is now known as the part of the brain responsible for tracking our movements. Using something like an internal compass, the brain tracks where you are, where you have been, and in what direction you are heading. Interestingly, this is also the part of the brain that is responsible for storing memories and understanding speech, and is active during story-telling. In other words, we keep track of where we are going like telling ourselves a story. Wayfinding is very much a narrative process.
Ellard also explained that the hippocampus has been shown to be more active in many taxi drivers who rely on their own intimate knowledge of the city to get around. Those who rely more on GPS devices often show less activity. The GPS-free cabbies are more aware of alternate routes, and finding unknown destinations based on surrounding landmarks. This reinforces the understanding that developed experiential knowledge of an environment, based on memories and personal experiences, is more effective when charting unknown territory.
Mark Shepard, an artist fellow working at Eyebeam that also presented at the event, has developed a smart phone wayfinding application called the Serendipitor. The GPS-enabled app leads you through a series of narrative and provocative directions while you find your way to your destination. Directions are interpreted from your surroundings, like “walk towards the river. If there is no river, make one.” This challenges the user to be more engaged with their surroundings. The key to the app’s success is how it promotes the creation of new memories, and allows the user to explore on their own. With his application, the act of learning to find your way is a much more valuable experience.
A shared opinion with many of the presenters was that the process of getting to the destination is more important than actually arriving. Exploring choices, and actively reading the environment along the way, helps to make navigating a new place more memorable, and even enjoyable. Technology can play an important role in enriching the experience through the storytelling process.
Jake Barton, of Local Projects, explained why he thinks that technology should act invisibly, and only in service of the story to be told. His firm developed a software application in arranging names for the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. The software allowed them to better organize names at the memorial by arranging them in a more meaningful way, connecting names adjacently by relationship and where they were on that day. Finding someone in the memorial is not just a name hunt, but a narrative discovery. This adds meaning to the experience for many visitors, and extends the story. The experience of visiting the memorial is enriched by the technology that helped create it, and the stories become a seamless part of the wayfinding process.
Our understanding of the environment can be enlightened by technology, but should not be replaced by it. So much of our human experience relies on our ability to explore, learn, and interpret. In many ways, GPS devices and online services are helping us better understand our world. They can certainly help to enrich our lives, but only if they are part of a greater personal experience. Like a game, finding our way around can be challenging, but when given the answer too soon, we lose the ability to learn from our experience and enjoy the story.
Susan Welker, AIA - 18 May 2013
Exactly! I did research during my Masters in Architecture about how more w...
Yen Cao - 15 May 2013
Way to go Brian! Congrats.
Air Monitoring - 15 May 2013
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Don Wesley - 14 May 2013
Sara: What an honor, and so well deserved! You have always been a very sp...
Bob Farwell - 13 May 2013
Sara: Congratulations! I have always been impressed by your talents,work e...