Are we losing our way in a world in which GPS tells us where to go?

A new feature from Google Maps could ensure even more precise directions but we discover that technology is also making us less reliant on our senses

JAKARTA, DKI JAKARTA, INDONESIA - 2019/02/13: An on-line taxi driver seen using gps navigate which was mounted above the car dashboard to provide driving direction at Jakarta, Indonesia.
Indonesian Constitutional Court has ruled that checking the GPS on a mobile phone while driving is punishable by up to three months' imprisonment, as stipulated in the 2009 Traffic Law. (Photo by Agung Fatma Putra/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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Getting lost isn't as easy as it used to be. ­Devices equipped with GPS receivers know roughly where they are, and if we are carrying those devices then we know where we are, too.

Location-aware apps can tell us the whereabouts of the nearest restaurants, parking spots and even our friends. But despite this modern miracle, we can still be let down in the final few metres.

Thanks to the slight imprecision of GPS, coupled with confusing street addresses and uncertainty over the direction we are facing, the spectacle of the disorientated traveller is still commonplace. But Google is one of the companies now seeking to change this.

An indifference to our surroundings?

A forthcoming feature for Google Maps called VPS ­(Visual Positioning System) uses the camera on your phone to scan your surroundings, look for landmarks, compare them with existing photographic data and then display helpful arrows on the screen to show you exactly where you need to go. As this technology becomes even more precise, it would be possible to ­offload any responsibility for our sense of direction completely.

Some people may wonder if this represents a loss of ­cognitive power and ­whether we are making ourselves vulnerable.

Hundreds of apps offer computer-assisted guidance, and road usage in cities has changed radically as navigation systems direct us down the optimum route. The systems in car dashboards are becoming trusted sources of local information, while voice assistants such as Apple's Siri have become personal guides, instructing us where and when to turn.

According to Greg Milner, author of Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Our World, this has resulted in a growing indifference to our surroundings. In the book, he cites a Cornell University study which looked at the effect of navigation systems on drivers and found evidence for "loss of environmental engagement", because of a reduced need to interpret the world around us. "There are some rumblings among cognitive experts that we may be under­going fundamental changes," he says.

Life with augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) services such as Google's VPS will bond us even more closely to the technology, which is evidently a concern Google has pondered; in tests, users have reported that when they look to VPS for visual advice, the system soon reminds you to look where you are going, and eventually stops displaying arrows altogether.

But if such a system was incorporated into AR spectacles, this information would be permanently accessible. Virtual signs and arrows would effectively become part of our environment.

When travelling in a vehicle, that may be no bad thing. Swiss company WayRay is incorporating this kind of AR into cars – most recently in partnership with Hyundai – by projecting a holographic image through the windscreen in front of the driver, thus ­positioning navigational guides and other information on the road. That would mean no more glancing at a screen or being instructed by an automated voice; you would have accurate, useful information, updated in real time.

"We rely on many ­different sensors in the car," WayRay's chief executive Vitaly Pono­marev says. "Using these, we can determine the precise position of the car in space. Computer vision can detect where the car is headed and match that to a map, while other sensors can detect micro-movements.

“Then we have a layer of algorithms predicting 100 milliseconds into the future, which helps to render the content smoothly. There’s a feeling of the projections being inte­grated into the real world.”

Most GPS receivers can estimate our position within five metres, but certain circumstances can reduce their precision. The kind of ­accuracy described by Ponomarev – where a system can even pinpoint the lane in which a car is ­travelling – is now being pursued on many fronts.

What's in store for the future

Navigation firm Waze is placing beacons in tunnels to assist cars when travelling underground, while tech­nology developed at the University of Hong Kong can recognise the incline of a car, allowing it to determine whether it is travelling on an overpass or an underpass. 

Spatial technologies need not replace ­geographic thinking. The increased access to information gives people a new way to quickly and easily explore new landscapes.

And on the mapping side of things, there are innovations such as what3words, which obliterates the problem of vague addresses by dividing the world into three-metre squares, each denoted by a three-word phrase (eg the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is at play.approved.talent). It points to a time when anything or anyone could be found anywhere, purely by automated means. In an era of self-driving cars, we would not even need to think.

Ponomarev stresses that WayRay's aim is to augment the human senses rather than replace them, even in a self-driving car scenario. "Passengers still need to feel confident that the car is making the right decision," he says. "So they need to see a visualisation of the navigation."

But the effects of these systems on the human mind has been argued over a lot. Some behavioural scientists suggest that we resist the temptation to rely on them in order to maintain our sense of spatial awareness, but American scientist Dr Jennifer Bernstein suggests that this may just be "ethnonostalgia", or a ­yearning for a simpler time. "Spatial technologies need not replace ­geographic thinking," she says. "The increased access to information gives people a new way to quickly and easily explore new landscapes."

In other words, less time spent worrying about where you are, more time spent ­enjoying where you are.