Mapping the world, again

Originally published by Wired, New Zealand-based visual imaging lecturer and ex-aircraft navigator Dave Cochrane looks at how increasing access to map technology is not only making life easier for many, but considers how it might once again come to open up new frontiers.

Since around 16,500BC, mankind has attempted to represent the world graphically. Plotting the stars on cave walls has allowed us to see that inhabitants of the Lascaux caves in France wanted to communicate their observations, or at least record them so that others might learn of their existence, or their gods. Maps have influenced our history in the most profound ways, defining the borders that divide us by language, race, culture and sometimes religion. Millions have perished defending the lines and words that only exist on parchment, paper or rock. In fact, our entire experience of history has been linked to the existence and improvement of maps, both of the earth and oceans, and the stars in the night sky. Cartography – the art of making maps of the world around us – has come a long way since the incredible early works of the Babylonians in 700–500BC and the 15th century Fra Mauro in Venice. Those who control how maps are made control how the rest of us perceive the world as it exists outside of our immediate personal experience.

The flat, pseudo-3D representations of the world around us that we commonly use now will not hold sway forever

Early mapping

Earlier cartographers also pursued mapmaking beyond the earth itself. Selenography, the practice of mapping the moon’s surface, is a perfect example of humankind’s passions for labelling, representing and communicating the nature of objects to one another – even when, at the time the maps were being made, they had no hope of ever verifying the accuracy of their endeavours. This early work laid the foundation for some of our most significant achievements as a species. The future may – if influential science fiction author Isaac Asimov is to be believed – require interactive, highly detailed star maps. We may also need the ability to easily plot courses across vast distances, making the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean seem akin to crossing the street by comparison.

Mapping, and the ability to find the path between locations, is power. It is choice. It is also increasingly a commercial point of difference between competing platforms in personal digital devices, and a number of industries have defined their daily worth in our lives by the quality of their products – Google, Jeppeson, Apple Maps, Ordnance Survey and others.

Advancing technology

As our ability to represent information in increasingly abstract ways has developed, first with animal tallow and pigments, and later pen and ink, then printing press, plotter and CRT, it is clear that the quality of our maps and the usefulness of the technology that we rely on so deeply are utterly inseparable. Explorers like Captain Cook (and his astonishingly skilled diplomat and navigator Tupaia) have forged paths to allow the rest of us to follow where once maps only indicated that ‘here be dragons’, or marked the ‘edge of the world’. What’s more, we now have the means to examine the maps we have refined over the millennia in a wide variety of ways. What began as physically wrought globes and paper maps and charts has advanced to ‘glass cockpits’ in aeroplanes, where conventional analogue flight instruments have been replaced with digital-based displays. These offer vital information projected onto the glass Heads Up Displays (HUDs) used by pilots in many military and some civilian aircraft. HUDs allow vital information about an aircraft's speed, heading, altitude and more to ‘float’ in the pilot's eyeline, removing the need to look inside the cockpit and away from threats outside like terrain or other aircraft.

Mapping for the 21st century

We now have the option to highlight features by political boundary, local physical geography, or even points of danger relevant to map user’s needs.

Automotive, aviation, marine and fitness brands spend vast sums of money on providing us with accurate, useful and (most importantly) legible maps to use when driving to work, flying to another continent, sailing a rhumb line or great circle, or choosing a cycling route that we haven’t yet explored. Our world now requires us to know about street names, labels that tell us where hospitals and other significant places are, and alternative routes to our intended destinations to avoid congestion or roadworks.

The importance of legibility

Of course, as our ability to get from one place to another at ever-greater speeds becomes commonplace, the legibility of these maps, legends and instructions are of increasing importance. It’s important to note that aircraft and cars travel different distances in the same amount of time, which can mean variations in the time needed to glance at displays and absorb essential information swiftly and accurately while remaining safe.

How we represent data in maps when they are examined at differing scales, or in different parts of the world, is another important consideration. Our streets are not all parallel grids, and our street names are rarely represented in a few characters. Different projections allow us to represent movement around the globe more clearly, depending on where we wish to focus our travel. At the highest and lowest latitudes, navigators use stereographic projections, while an ocean crossing may best be plotted on a transverse mercator (it sounds complex, but it’s actually just unwrapping the globe into a sheet that can be wrapped around a vertical or horizontal tube).

Aviation maps in particular feature an exceptionally high information density – pilots will often undertake a period of route study before flying a low level route that may necessitate easy visual identification of map features, and be able to pick these out under layers representing air traffic control zones and other information.

"Clear and precise mapping, whether paper-based or digital is essential to military fast jet operations,” says Lieutenant Commander Matt Fooks-Bale, of the British Royal Navy. “Detailed route study is conducted before any low level flight and this is even more critical if those low level flights are conducted at night using Night Vision Goggles (NVGs). Any obstacles are noted and highlighted on the map to ensure pilots are aware of their presence and extra reliance is placed on those same maps in digital format displayed to the pilot on screens in the cockpit.

“Whilst reliance on digital mapping and projected HUD information is significant, all military pilots will ensure that they are proficient at reversionary navigation methods, i.e., using a map and stopwatch in the event that the GPS or digital map solution is lost.”

Day-to-day needs

Most people’s usage, however, involves researching how to get to their destination with the fewest possible delays along the way, and how to get back on track when if they are forced to detour due to short notice changes to their route. Automotive designers have made the inclusion of high resolution screen GPS systems a luxury feature for many years now; these systems however are almost always bespoke and vary widely in quality of maps, speed of operation, and integration with other personal technology.

Here in New Zealand, many thousands of drivers (myself included) own vehicles shipped over from Japan that feature incredibly sophisticated units capable of not only GPS mapping, but also home automation, TV and voice recognition. Unfortunately, those systems have limited (usually no) ability to be reconfigured to use languages other than Japanese, making these maps almost useless. What does endure across languages is a set of near universal symbols – for hospitals, ports, train stations, and so on.

Clarity and caution

Labelling is essential for making maps useful – labels may not only exist to display the name of a location, but to reinforce a particular piece of information about that name. For example, population centres may be labelled in a heavier, serif typeface to emphasise their size, cultural significance or another relevant fact. Smaller places, such as villages or minor towns, might be represented by a sans serif, lighter weight typeface, perhaps in a different colour or capitalisation.

The ability to indicate context clearly and legibly using digitally represented mapping is increasingly important. In aircraft, road vehicles, and now even bicycles, safety depends on being able to interpret written information easily and swiftly without taking too much attention away from critical decision-making.

Mapping to get ahead

It’s not just drivers that benefit from such technology. On the field during World Rally events, for example, GPS systems act as a backup for race teams and safety officials. All cars are tracked by customised Google Maps, with active vehicles shown as green dots. If a car stops and opens its bonnet, green is replaced by blue, and in the case of an emergency, red. A car shown in red triggers an alert to race marshals and, if necessary, the emergency services. This alert is transmitted along with the car’s location data.During testing, GPS also provides in-car tracking accurate down to distances of as little as 15cm. And in off-road rallying, where drivers are required to hit waypoints, specialised GPS is used to track progress.

But it’s in the sport of road rallying where in-car mapping technology comes into its own. Road rallies, which often consist of up to 150 cars racing at night by following a pre–plotted route, are by necessity navigation-based, and unlike in other forms of rallying, where it’s the driver who calls the shots, here races are often won due to the ability of the navigator.

A spokesperson for M-Sport, which operates Ford’s World Rally programme, says: “Road Rallying is often seen as an ‘apprenticeship’ for navigators learning the skills associated with map reading, including the ability to ‘feel’ the road through the seat without actually seeing out of the window – a skill developed over many years that becomes a key element for the world champions of the future.”

GPS has been integrated into the world of rally car racing for at least the last six years. The role it plays has gradually diversified over time, but it has some way to go yet before it replaces more traditional navigation aids. In stage-based racing, such as that of the World Rally Championships, drivers and navigators tend to still rely on their own pace notes, which they create themselves (during strictly controlled practice runs) in advance of a race. These act as a script of the road, and warn drivers if they’re veering off course or falling behind. Drivers also make use of a printed ‘road book’, which is issued to all teams and presents information consistently, regardless of course, country or language.

Despite lots of discussion within the sport about a digital alternative to World Rally’s road book, it’s consistency has to date proved difficult to reproduce. According to M-Sport, “Technology has a place in motorsport – but for the core skills of navigating it will be a long time before it is possible to trust GPS technology to replace an Ordnance Survey map and a road book.”

But for your everyday driver, things are certainly moving on. As displays become available in increasingly higher resolutions and eyeline projections make their way from military to consumer vehicles, visual information designers are under relentless pressure to ensure that their designs are able to adapt, to be legible on different surfaces, and to provide as minimal a barrier as possible to immediate user understanding. The flat, pseudo-3D representations of the world around us that we commonly use now will not hold sway forever; devices like Google Glass may soon use augmented reality to offer us layered views of the real world. Representing the world around us as data is going to require new methods of labelling that are sensitive to context, and which infer a great deal more than they might directly symbolise.

It’s not hard to imagine the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift virtual reality system being further developed in years to come, allowing us to view the people around us as Facebook ‘friends’ with floating labels telling us about what they’ve been doing, how they feel… the breadth of possibility is staggering. As we take effortless direction-finding increasingly for granted, ‘interpersonal cartography’ might well become a guiding force in human relationships. As significant as crudely drawn coastlines that allowed us to populate far off lands hundreds of years ago, the labelling of those around us might come to have some powerful influence on how we live our lives.