Monday, 21 January 2013

Maps on the brain...

I was interested and not surprised to find that psychologists and cartographers have recently discovered that using small digital maps (of the type found on smartphones, tablets, navigation avionics devices, etc) actually impairs our spatial awareness. This ties-in with my own experience of navigating by "following the pink line" (on my Garmin, or iPad GPS etc), happily and accurately reaching my destination airport, "...good, airfield in sight (tell the tower, etc)", but then suddenly faced with the mental gymnastics of "****, how do I line-up in the right direction for my overhead join".

Of course, being prepared in advance for the correct arrival is the appropriate response (I hear you shout), but on occasion I admit I've been caught-out in the slightly bizarre situation of having 100% location-awareness (from the GPS), and almost zero spatial awareness. Yes, the "OBS" functionality (if your device has it) helps a *great* deal in this scenario...but only if you remember how to activate it in the heat of the moment... ("what switch or knob on the Garmin 430 does that again?") etc.

I'm relieved to hear the experts telling me its not entirely my fault. Their findings are summarised in last week's (19 January 2013, p45) New Scientist article  "Where in the World...?" .  Well worth a read.

Here are some highlights:

Toru Ishikawa from the University of Tokyo, Japan, found that:

"...those referring to their phones traveled more slowly, walked longer distances and were worse at working out their orientation than those using a paper map ".

The full paper can be found at Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience, in Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol 28, p. 74.

...and Georg Gartner, a cartographer at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria argues from similar experimental evidence that reading maps on cellphones can affect our spatial cognition. Specifically:

"A map on a mobile device or in a navigation system leads to less accurate mental maps and a lower ability to act in the real world". 

...Yikes, just as I was contemplating adding GoogleMaps to my new iNavCalc mobile app...which, on balance, I will probably do for the convenience of finding waypoints in pre-flight planning, but not for navigation.

[Anyway, just like everyone else, I always fly with complete, up-to-date, paper charts folded in the correct manner for my given route, and easliy accessible in the cockpit. Right ?]