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Geolocation: Finding Your Happy (or Brutal) Place

Mar 29, 2010 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen

Today's geolocation systems are in a rut, "augmenting" reality with lists of data. We can do better. Authentic interaction with location is about our animal feelings, not information. Let's get back to happy (or brutal)

I feel thirstyAn old adage says, “People may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.” For technical folks, it’s a good reminder that feelings are just as important as data. Nowhere is this truer than in dealing with location.

Good designs have interactions that behave like analogous interactions in the real world, using skills and behaviors that come naturally for people. With “place” more than anything else, our natural interactions tend to be primal and feelings-based. Sadly, none of the currently popular location-based or augmented reality services fully take advantage of this fact.

Data-Oriented Interactions: Shopping and Sports

Before talking about feelings and location, though, let’s talk about some natural interactions that are data-oriented.

scoreboardIf you’re building a system that augments people’s experience of sporting events, you need to keep the data front and center. Data permeates everything in sports, starting with the scoring system. You probably know a huge sports buff who can quote copious statistics about all of the players in the league. Watching a game with this friend is probably a very data-intensive experience.

A game can inspire feelings of exultation or dejection, but these feelings are subordinate to the data. If you don’t even know that the Canadians were heavily favored to win,or that the Canadians outshot the U.S. 45-23,or any of the other remarkable statistics about the hockey matchup, the U.S. victory leading up to the semifinals and subsequent defeat in the finals will not seem nearly as significant to you.

Shopping is another example where it makes sense to focus on data. When you’re shopping in the real world, you focus on prices, colors, sizes, and other data. You remember what type of material the shirt was made of, what cut the pants had, whether they were on the clearance rack, and so on. An experienced shopper can memorize a tremendous amount of this information without even trying, and computers can naturally augment this human capacity by providing additional ways to store and share shopping data.

Place: Not So Data-Oriented

In contrast to shopping, people normally don’t remember long lists of data about physical locations. Real estate agents and people with Asperger’s are the exceptions that prove the rule. However, most location-aware tools overlay your experience with lists of data: the current traffic flow, temperature, dew point, phone book for nearby businesses, which of your friends have visited recently, and so on. All useful information, but completely unnatural. This isn’t how our bodies and souls are primed to interact with location.

How We Interact With A Place

prospect and refugeOne clue to how we interact with our location lies in the classic architectural concept of “prospect-refuge”. In his influential book, “The Experience of Landscape,” Jay Appleton articulated this concept, which is now familiar to most architects and designers. When you design a landscape or a building, you need to provide lots of areas which offer both prospect and refuge. People instinctively feel uncomfortable when they cannot survey their surroundings, or if they’re too far from a suitable shelter. Peering out from a cozy cave at the top of a hill feels good; being trapped at the bottom of a ravine with no shelter in sight feels naked and exposed. If you’re not familiar with this idea, take time to observe people in a mall, club, or other large public space. Watch how they gravitate toward places that offer prospect and refuge, and avoid places that leave them exposed. Few will even be able to explain why they prefer one spot over another; the impulse and action are subconscious. It’s an incredibly powerful innate drive.

What’s so revealing about this example? Most architectural or design guidelines focus on things like aesthetics, balance, consistency, and cognitive continuity. But here we’re talking literally about refuge— shelter from danger. It’s a rather savage and brutish concept that doesn’t fit well with our normal design guidelines, and all because we’re talking about location.

Navigating a Place By Memory

Memories about location follow the same pattern. A person can easily forget the location of the vehicle licensing office during the two years between renewals, but can navigate by memory to a great restaurant in a foreign country visited only once, years ago. Someone can accidentally drive to the wrong city for a meeting or doctor’s appointment, yet be assailed with a flood of memories about a long-forgotten relationship, triggered by the sight of particular park or intersection. Food and lovers are two examples that most people can easily identify with, but there are plenty of others. A heroin or meth addict who’s been sober for 10 years can relapse at the mere sight of a building or alleyway from the old neighborhood. Soldiers with PTSD can experience severe panic attacks when placed in an environment that resembles the place where they were injured. Food, love, pleasure, pain, fear—these are all savage things. We’re not talking about refined emotional experiences such as surprise, laughter, or annoyance. You remember where you got your first kiss, and many after that, but you don’t remember where you laughed or were annoyed. This is what “natural interaction” with location looks like.

Sharing Our Experiences

ghostEven when communicating our location-based experiences to others, we tend to rely on savage feelings instead of data. Communities preserve and pass these on as community lore. Ghost stories are one good example – ghosts linger in a place because of some unresolved emotional trauma or unrequited love that occurred there. Think of the memorials placed at the roadside where some teen was killed by a drunk driver. Long before we had written history, we were memorializing our communities’ greatest victories and deepest tragedies through landmarks and memorials. The Statue of Liberty and the Arc de Triomphe memorialize the emotional experiences of millions of people. Creating a landmark to commemorate the overwhelming emotions of the visitors to Ellis Island is very natural, and so is your tendency to “catch” some of that emotion when visiting the Statue of Liberty. Sending a tweet that says, “unlocked the Statue of Liberty badge”, not so much.

Only music and certain forms of poetry come close to enabling us to share our emotional memories in this way, and location is by far the strongest. A basic understanding of the brain’s anatomy reveals why.

Place and the Brain

When most people imagine the brain, they first think of the rounded mass of wrinkled gray matter, the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that gives us thought, language, and consciousness. Memorizing sports scores or shopping lists is a cerebral activity.

Location is thoroughly non-cerebral, though. To get to location, we need to look at a smaller, more savage part of the brain: the limbic system. The limbic system is an ancient part of the brain, shared by all mammals, which is responsible for emotions, memory formation, and spatial recognition. Poetry and music also activate the limbic system. The dolphin’s limbic system is larger and more extensive than a human’s, but even a starving squirrel’s tiny limbic system is enough to navigate him to the exact location where he buried his nut 6 months ago.

Brutal Emotions

Happy squirrelTwo components of the limbic system collaborate to help that squirrel find his happy place. First is the amygdala, which gives us “emotions”. These aren’t the civilized emotions that we’re talking about. It’s hard to even talk about them at all, because they operate at a more ancient level than language. Next time you find yourself experiencing a flood of emotions upon visiting a certain place, try describing your sensations to a friend. Words and pictures are sadly deficient. What are the words to describe the dull inner aching you feel when standing in a field where a dear friend lost his life? How can words precisely describe the remembered orgy of gustatory pleasure that draws you back to a restaurant you visited years ago? Pleasure, pain, fear, joy: these reside in the amygdala.

Sense of Space

The other important part of the limbic system is the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory formation and location recognition. When the amygdala experiences a particularly strong emotion, the hippocampus goes into action, storing a rough three-dimensional spatial map of the location and all of the relevant landmarks leading up to the location. The “landmarks” that the hippocampus stores are not the sort of landmarks that you might use when giving directions (“turn right at the second stop sign”). Instead, the hippocampus stores rough spatial maps of the terrain along the route that got you to that location. Most cruise missiles use a similar navigation technique called TERCOM (Terrain Contour Matching), where cameras on the missile use the contours of the terrain to guide the missile to its destination. GPS satellites can be shot out of the sky, and you can’t always paint a target with a laser (analogous to saying, “the second stop sign on the right”), so mimicking the hippocampus is often the best way to guide a cruise missile.

The hippocampus is far more efficient than the cruise missile, though. Not only does it remember the route you used to get to your happy place, it’s very good at finding new routes when you need to get back to happy. Even if you begin at a completely different starting point, looking at the landmarks from an angle that you’ve never seen before, the hippocampus can normally get you to your destination.

Augmented Reality Can Cause Brain Damage

Every time I see someone navigating around town with his eyes fixed on a GPS-enabled phone, it makes me sad. Instead of taking in the sights and smells and allowing his amygdala to imprint his hippocampus with the shape of the city, he has become a mindless drone, taking instructions from an algorithm. We don’t even expect our cruise missiles to navigate this way—why are we asking humans to do it? The brain is like a muscle which shrinks if you don’t use it. We have reams of experimental evidence showing that the hippocampus will get bigger if you spend a lot of time navigating new routes by landmark. Since the hippocampus is such an old part of the brain, a weak hippocampus impacts many other areas of the brain. Likewise, when you memorize turn-by-turn directions for a new route through a familiar city, you’re cheating your hippocampus.

You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Location

Now that we’ve described what a “natural interaction” with location looks like, some implications for location-oriented services should be obvious. Of course, there are many useful location-based scenarios that needn’t be “natural”, such as finding a post office while on a business trip (savages didn’t have post offices). We have phone books and yellow pages for a reason, and they work fine for what they’re for. But we shouldn’t treat every location-based system as if it’s a virtual phone book.

Here are a couple of example scenarios, just to illustrate the point:

Restaurant Guides

There are several popular location services that help you find food. At first glance, this is a perfect scenario for a “virtual yellow pages” application. A person just checks his GPS and chooses from a list of the 20 closest restaurants. But this is a huge step backwards. In the real world, nobody uses the yellow pages to find a restaurant. Starbucks or McDonalds, maybe, but when you’re lusting for a gustatory treat in a new neighborhood, you don’t want to risk a bad trip. Finding stashes of food when you’re hungry is exactly what your hippocampus is for, which might explain why we’d often rather wander than use the yellow pages.

Yummy street food Most of the services out there have integrated reviews, but these are just another database of information: you filter by type of cuisine, price range, average rating and distance; then you follow the step-by-step directions to get there—exactly like ordering a new camera from But does anyone really want to find food that way? Not really. When you want a great dining experience, you rely on the experiences of people you trust. Several solutions come to mind. First, if I’ve eaten somewhere and had a great experience, that place should show up on my map with more prominence. Likewise, friends whose tastes I trust should show up more vividly than strangers’. Second, I shouldn’t need one application to find restaurants, and a different one to find taco trucks or street vendors. That’s just stupid. Your stomach doesn’t differentiate, and it’s just unnatural for location-based service to differentiate.

When you’re finding food, the data is important, but only in a supporting background role. As each location lures you in, you should be able to filter out places that don’t meet your criteria (“eating a six course meal would take too long”). This is exactly how you do it in the real world. When you’re choosing a restaurant, the first level of filtering is the amount of passion that each person (and each person’s stomach) exhibits. When someone campaigns for a restaurant, they say, “The place was AWESOME!” They don’t prattle on about the average wait time or how clean the restrooms are.

For me, a great food guide might show some sort of glowing indicator for a limited number of locations, with the intensity or “pull” of the locations determined by past experiences. The location indicators would be ranked on a single hedonistic scale, factoring the rankings from you and your friends much higher than strangers’ rankings. The locations could be oriented on a map or situated around you, with distance factoring into the “pull” of each. Imagine yourself being pulled in multiple directions simultaneously by delicious memories, and you’ll be approximating the real-world experience of standing in a neighborhood with great food.

Finally, when you’re at some location experiencing the best meal of your life, you should be able to capture that fact without having to fill out a review and enter in a bunch of irrelevant data. All you need to capture is that it was awesome; you’ll remember the rest of the information next time you’re in the neighborhood.

Navigation Systems

Another scenario is navigation. Despite rapid improvements in recent years, navigation systems still fail to engage the brain in a natural manner. We know that cab drivers who routinely navigate by landmarks have larger hippocampi than the normal person. Not so with cab drivers who have switched primarily to GPS-based navigation systems. As more drivers and pedestrians rely on navigation systems for routine navigation tasks, we cheat our limbic systems.

Following directionThe current mapping products from Bing and Google have taken some tenuous steps. First is the inclusion of 3D maps of major cities. Bing’s offering is particularly cool, offering a sort of “Sim City” view of major cities. However, people catalogue terrain contours from ground level. The 3D maps might be useful for engaging a helicopter pilot’s brain, but not so much for the rest of us.

More promising is the inclusion of street-level photography. With this feature, you can see a fairly accurate view of any point along your route. This would theoretically allow you to traverse a few routes virtually to prime your brain with a spatial map. However, this promise is currently unrealized. It’s almost impossible to use these navigation systems in a way that activates your hippocampus. To have a proper sense of space, you need a panoramic view that includes far away landmarks like mountains and up-close landmarks like large trees, placed in a three-dimensional context. Street-level photos flatten out faraway landmarks, and keep you pointed in the direction that’s least useful for building a mental spatial map. With smooth animation, you can get a sense of 3D, and almost get a feel for the contours of the road that you’ll be travelling. But if you try this with a familiar route, you can easily feel what’s missing. For example, you can click here to drive eastbound on NE 8th street (use the up arrow to drive forward). Try it in one of your local neighborhoods, then try driving the same route in your car, paying special attention to the cues that give you a sense of location.

We know that good video games can strongly activate 3D spatial encoding in the hippocampus, and good navigation systems should strive to do the same. At a minimum, this would require smoother animation and a two-axis control system like first-person shooters use, so that you could look around in all directions while navigating. A high level of detail is unnecessary; nobody remembers what the name on the “lost cat” poster says, anyway. My ideal system would blur the unnecessary details, and emphasize those details most likely to serve as landmarks. You would use music, time challenges, or games to arouse the limbic system while training the route.

One could imagine a system that is not designed to direct you turn-by-turn to a destination, but instead trains your mind to embed a proper spatial map of the area, so that you’d be able to navigate for yourself and enjoy the scenery on the way. You would enter a starting point and ending point. Then, rather than taking you on a virtual tour down the computed route, the system would take you on multiple virtual tours centered around the handful of most relevant landmarks, enabling your mind to subconsciously build a 3D spatial map of the important pathways around each landmark. Finally, it would stitch the landmarks together in a route, which would be easy to remember by this point.

You’d still need turn-by-turn assistance once in a while on-route, and it would make sense to give a very subtle nudge of some sort when important turns were coming up, but the navigation system should augment and complement you, not control and command you. Learning complex routes this way would certainly take more effort than following turn-by-turn directions like a zombie. But the payoff is large, especially in places you expect to be driving a lot. You’re probably good at finding new routes or even shortcuts through your own local neighborhood, without the use of a GPS. A navigation system should help you expand this capacity to much larger slices of the landscape. Cabbies for decades have been able to mentally maintain efficient 3D spatial maps of London or Tokyo, two of the most complicated cities in the world, so your own city should be a breeze.


A few guidelines to keep in mind when evaluating any scenario:

  • A place is not a point.
  • Movement is kinesthetic through contours, not a list of instructions. People aren’t robots.
  • The locations we remember are glowing embers of past experiences, not lists of names.
  • People want to share your experiences more than your data. Start with what’s most important.
  • Some navigational cues are better than others. Use introspection and experimentation to discover them.

The above two scenarios aren’t meant to be fully-developed ideas, of course. They’re just two scenarios I concocted to illustrate the point that the vast majority of location-oriented interfaces are terribly unnatural. The current state of affairst isn’t because “natural interactions” for location are particularly difficult to implement. Rather, I suspect it’s because most people haven’t thought about location much, and don’t realize how different location is. Once the differences become apparent, finding scenarios is like shooting fish in a barrel. What are some that come to mind for you? Do you have other examples of current location-aware services that do unnatural things? Join the conversation below.

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6 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Beth Harrison Beth Harrison said on Mar 30, 2010

Thank you so much for posting this piece. At Socialight, we believe that location means so much more than a pin on a map, it''s contextual... an experience, a potential memory, and a way to share content or media with others who care about discovering similar things. So thank you for pointing this out (pardon the pun)

moserw moserw said on Apr 1, 2010

I believe Google is doing something similar in Google Maps for Mobile with the Buzz layer. Right now though there is not much in terms of information about a particular location but I for one have started Buzzing about the place I''m at (either good or bad). Should be useful in the long run especially if more people start sharing.

Tim Dixon Tim Dixon said on Apr 1, 2010

Soooo true. Bing Maps does it wrong for Twitter and Foursquare. Click on --Map Apps--

mindtaker mindtaker said on May 18, 2010

great post

mitsbits mitsbits said on Aug 3, 2010

really helpful

gary gary said on Feb 1, 2011

Interesting write up, the idea of geolocation and how it can evolve over the next decade is certainly an interesting topic. I think we are really in stage 1 of this technology. I''m sure we will get to a place where the brain and technology can truly interact, how long it will take to get there is anyone''s guess, it''s like trying to find Article Ghost Writers in the dark. You think you know which direction you are heading but often end up in the wrong place.