Unlike most of the blogsphere today, I’m not going to come up with another witty joke about how poor Apple’s name choice was for the iPad. Instead, let’s focus on a recent news about a research initiative to investigate the “the impacts of sat navs on spatial attention and memory while undertaking a complex task such as driving” (Agarwal quoted by The Press Association).
These researchers in the UK look into one of my favourite topics of human navigation: the dynamic balance between learning about and acting upon our spatial environment. When visiting a new city or driving on unfamiliar roads, our brain takes up information in a distinctively different fashion than when we travel the same well-known route to our parents’ house as we have done thousands of times since our childhood (literally, different neural formations and pathways are activated in our brain, see Hartley et al., 2003).
Exploring new side streets versus steering towards familiar neighbourhoods, either consciously or not, is a choice that we make every time we travel. The analysis of the patterns in which human explorers make these choices show that in addition to the obvious constraints of the environment (e.g., availability of alternative roads), people also have a personal preference of how they like to get to their destinations (Makany, 2009). Some of us prefer the shortest routes, while others are more adventurous types. This diversity of individual navigation choices creates beautiful complexity for social mobility patterns (Gonzales et al., 2008).
What is it have to do with GPS and sat navs? Most of these technologies eliminate this ‘personal touch’ from our travels. It offers the most optimal routes, shortest time, distance, avoiding traffic, toll-ways, etc. So far, however, I have not seen an optimization algorithm that implements the real human factor in spatial navigation. Such system should analyze route choices previously taken by the driver and determine what kind of route plan will be not only the most economic but also the most satisfactory. I keep my fingers crossed that Agarwal and her colleagues will have this previously ignored human perspective included in their new research initiative.