Google And The Death Of Getting Lost

What’s that heaving into view over the horizon? Thanks to smartphones, tablets, and pretty much everything enabled with GPS, it’s the end of traditional navigation as we know it. You can’t get lost now.

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For better or for worse, your kids may never really have to work out exactly where they are on the planet or where they’re going–one device or another will do it for them, and Google and the cloud will help.

One of the more startling things, if you were watching closely, in the concept video for Google’s AR-goggle “Glass” project last week was when the wearer asked his device how to get to a particular part of a store he was in. The goggles not only knew where he was standing, but where he wanted to go on the store’s floorplan and worked out how to route him past floor displays and other obstacles to get where he wanted to go. Think about that the next time you’re lost in a huge department store. But how did Google get that data?

Well, because people like you provided it. Google just released a tool that lets you provide exacty this sort of information to Google’s map database. All you need is a compatible Android device and the app from Google’s Play app market. When wandering around your building, the app collects information about what GPS signals it can capture, as well as ID and signal information about public Wi-Fi transmitters and cell towers. This is basically the same info Google’s Street View systems capture, which got Google into trouble when it also sniffed passwords and other private info, but this time inside a building on a much more intimate scale. It’s actually just the latest move from Google to make this info relevant, since last November it released Google Maps Floor Plans to let companies actually mark out the arrangement of their floors with a software tool.

The newest initiative is sold to potential clients by Google by way of a request: “Help improve the ‘blue dot’ for people visiting your venue,” but it’s actually the most potent move. That’s because it’s a sign of the immediate future, where outdoors A-GPS is augmented by indoors navigation systems. And it’s not just this tool enabling the indoors data-capture, by the way, Street View is even entering places with a more-permanent floor plan to give you remote access, and–inevitably–to feed data into indoor navigation systems:


Soon enough we’ll be crowdsourcing this info ourselves, and stores may voluntarily upload info about regular floorplan changes in order to attract customers the right way to the right places inside (think of the advertising potential they’ll tap into, pop-over AR or location-based or otherwise, and then think what kind of crazy indoor-GPS-shelf-arranging tricks will be possible from an industry that knows how to pipe the smell of baking bread through a store to make you feel like buying food). 

And if you think the “Apple/Google/Microsoft is storing location tracking data about you in your phones” fiasco was big, then you’re slightly naive–think about the implications of telling Google which part of a shopping mall, or even part of a store, or arts center or workplace you’re visiting in real time, nearly all the time. And yet, you bet, soon enough we’ll all be doing this to multiple device makers because the benefits of real-time navigation are so self-evident.

Real-timeliness will also apply to the ancilary data that supports mapping and navigation too. For starters, we may soon enough be able to gain access to more timely satellite imagery than is afforded by Google’s slowish Earth satellite mapping endeavor. Private imaging satellites are becoming notable, and it was a private satellite image of the cruise liner disaster off Italy recently that was one of the more memorable images. When more satellites like this are whizzing overhead, and a sufficiently cheap pricing model has been arrived at, then there’s probably going to be a satellite looking near where you are pretty much all the time. Which means those satellite map tiles in Google will be getting more accurate. This is a slightly further out future, we admit, but think how useful this would be for avoiding traffic jams, or a million other uses–all tied to your other navigation systems. 

And it’s these devices that are propelling us toward a navigation-free future. GPS is so ubiquitous, and so relied upon, that there are GPS-related accidents every day. That’s a downside of the tech, but the upside is much bigger–so much so that Asus, faced with a hardware-related GPS error on some of the early units of its well-selling Transformer tablet, has had to issue a “fix” for affected customers that includes an external GPS dongle. GPS is pretty much everywhere already, and that’s only going to get more pronounced…and if it’s not the originally U.S.-launched GPS itself, then there are several other satellite solutions already operating.


Do we care that our kids will probably never have to work out how to navigate from one end of town to another by themselves, using nothing other than insight, a canny sense of direction and, if all else fails, a paper map? For starters, probably not–because they can always learn those skills as a Boy or Girl Scout.

But a recent article about the difference in automation of flying systems in modern airliners from Boeing and Airbus gives us pause. Boeing, you see, maintains a pilot authority over the automated flying systems … whereas Airbus leaves the aircraft nearly always in command with the pilot instructing it. Both systems have their benefits, though the Airbus one may have a slight edge on overall safety. But both are resulting in a suite of pilots who never have to learn the delicacies of flying, the intangible “seat of the pants” sensations that give them an affinity with their machine. In short, the pilots are insulated from “real” flying by the automated systems, and if they go wrong then the pilots may be lost.

And that’s similar to automatic navigation, if you think about it. If for one reason or another you find yourself somewhere unfamiliar and all your different navigation aids shut down, then you may be truly stumped. And if your self-driving car, absolutely reliant on computer-based navigation, loses its place, then so will you.

Plus there’s also the horrible notion that by telling Google or Microsoft or Apple where you are all the time, you may subject yourself to adverts of an almost horrible personal-tracking level of relevance … Minority Report-style. There’s also the whimsical sense that by giving navigation over almost totally to computers, we’re losing touch with a basic animal skill that’s served us well for millions of years.

The in-built navigation powers aren’t going to fade from our genome that quickly. And, technology being reliably unreliable as it is, there’s going to be plenty of times when getting digitally lost and then physically finding one’s self is a vital trick.


[Image: Flickr user zoetnet ]

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)