Above, New York Nearest Subway app. Reporting by Christina Beard
A new wave of location-based apps are changing the way we interact with people and experience places. But what we've seen is just the beginning.
Xlab 2011: The Design of Location held at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, hosted by the Soceity of Environmental Graphic Design, explored what's currently being created with location-based technology and where we're headed. Speakers ranged from User Interface Designers to Psychologist and the audience was just as diverse.
Speakers focused on using location-based tools to build on current wayfinding standards. By building on what already exist, there's a greater adoption of new technologies. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, Jake Barton of Local Projects believes in evolving the pragmatics of wayfinding by creating a narrative layer on top of a rich interpretive experience. Local Projects 9/11 Memorial App, "a guide to understanding 9/11 through the eyes of who witnessed the events," is a stunning example of creating this type of narrative layer. Video, still images and an interactive timeline guide users through a location-based tour of the site.
Augmented reality (AR) was presented in both conceptual and pragmatic ways. Greg Tran, a recent graduate of Harvard Design School, presented Mediating Mediums: The Digital 3D, an exploration of what the future of AR could look like and it's potential affect on our experience with architecture. His work pushes the medium forward and helps us imagine what's in our future.
Adam Carey from Imano/AcrossAir presented New York Nearest Subway, an app that helps users navigate the subway system specific to their location. Simply hold your phone in front of you and virtual signage appears in the streetscape. The utilitarian aspects of AR will undoubtedly make new places easier to navigate.
Psychologist, Colin Ellard, brought an academic perspective to the conference, presenting research on positive and negative effects of location-based tools. Positive aspects include ease of transit in a new environment and the ability to use wayfinding as storytelling. Negative aspects include becoming disengaged with the world around you and potentially shrinking your hippocampus—the area of your brain that consolidates long and short-term memory and spatial navigation. Understanding how this new behavior effects our lives will help us design better experiences.
Patrick Hoffman, Senior UX Designer at Google Maps, brought us into the world of icons. He discovered that the interpretation of an icon ranges depending on age. For example, a rotary phone icon does not read as a telephone to people 14 and under. As designers, this reinforces the importance of understanding your user and who you're designing for. Hoffman's process in creating a universal religious icon required creating icons for every religious typology and then merging all of them to create an amalgamated, all-inclusive symbol. The danger is in creating something too neutral and generic; but Google is working hard to find innovative ways to personalize maps.
Designers walked away with insight into the design and implementation process—particularly the importance of early and rough prototyping. Many speakers described how the prototype helps to facilitate a conversation and move through a complex interaction with your client and potential users. New interactions require this.
The overarching opinion was that technology should disappear as you become immersed in the experience. By removing or minimizing any roadblocks users will easily adapt to new interactions and experiences. When thinking about how to improve a product or service Barton suggests, "Just ask yourself how dumb or simple or elegant can it be? Optimization is the biggest innovation for most new applications, taking existing paradigms that were prevalent even eight years ago with Mapquest, and tweaking them to be simpler, easier, and most of all accessible on all platforms at all times." Participants left the conference inspired and encouraged to consider how an experience could become more meaningful through the use of new technologies.
The following are a few apps rising to the surface in the new wave of location-based technology:
Listen as Lonely Planet takes you on a walking tour with historical audio from the BBC Archive.
Gowalla By Alamofire
A delightful way to share and discover photos, experiences and recommendations on the go.
myNav: Central Park By Winfield & Co.
Beautifully rendered and carefully surveyed, offline interactive map features all the Park's pathways, destinations, and amenities.
About Christina Beard
Christina Beard is a graphic designer, writer, and sailing enthusiast. She is currently exploring the role of digital media in wayfinding and defining strategies to create better experiences at Two Twelve.