news: I will talk about this topic at B_Talk (part of the B_Tour Festival) on Monday June 23rd 2014, 19:30 at the Prachtwerk in Berlin.
Mobile devices are often called ubiquitous: they are everywhere and part of our everyday life. We use them to communicate, but also to navigate. Location based features and applications are an important part of the “apps” ecosystem. As a cyberneticist, I see how not only we change technology, but technology changes ourselves: mobile devices affect our behavior, our postures (people walking in streets with their heads lowered down to look at screens), they change our way of traveling and commuting and even change the wiring of neuron cells in our brains. You probably don't have to wear the magnetic belt developed at the University of Osnabrück in order to experience this.
With location technologies we also see a change in the perception of what we call space: city and nature are experienced, assisted by technology, supervised by satellite imagery and GPS localization. It's becoming increasingly difficult to get lost. Or to just hang around somewhere without looking suspicious. (On the other hand: nothing more suspicious than a crowd of GeoCachers searching for clues…). Mobile devices also provide an ubiquitous virtual overlay, crawling in and extending the non-virtual reality and sometimes even replacing it, when we immerse in the digital realm of our smartphones, forgetting about the space and the environment we're actually in. By the way: whenever I use the term virtual, I usually mean it in Vilém Flusser's definition of something virtual as being not-yet or not-anymore.
The Saale Horizontale around Jena (left), B_TALK: part of B_TOUR festival (right)
You might know, I am currently working at the bauhaus-Universität weimar and my colleagues usually introduce me as “our mobile guy”. I realized that there's a certain irony in being a “mobile” guy sitting in an office and later on teaching in a classroom all day, talking about mobile technologies. I decided this has to change, so I created an outdoor course: http://www.uni-weimar.de/medien/wiki/IFD:GoingMobile.
So we went mobile and tested our apps and devices out in the field. Surely I learnt things I already knew (GPS is energy inefficient and drains your battery + if you have less than 1 minute to decide which bus to take, it's much faster to look in the printed schedule than trying to open up the DB Rail Navigator app with bad cell reception), and things I didn't know (app A says we burnt 890 calories, app B says we burnt 2400 calories … also: sometimes photos may end up in the internet, even if no one actually posted them anywhere; just by using the built-in camera from the lockscreen while an app like komoot is running in the background… nevertheless, I still love komoot).
We've seen audio guides that were wonderful (for example Janet Cardiff's Audio Walk across Cospeda's battle fields of 1806) and audio guides that are probably the most horrible ones available (e.g. the Buchenwald Audio Guide app available for 2,69 € in German and English). Don't get me wrong, I'm not only referring to the horrible history lesson, but to the amateurish implementation that doesn't allow you to put your device in your pocket… well, you can, but then there's no audio anymore.
We were looking for GeoCaches at day (yay, found it!) and at night (oh no, didn't find anything), liked GeoHashing but sadly couldn't get there without a car.
Surprisingly, I think I enjoyed “Mister X Mobile” the most. What a wonderful game, thrilling and exhausting at the same time.
We also tried getting lost (very hard), used dérive techniques with apps like Serendipitor and Hidden Drops and compared navigating with paper maps, Google Maps, Compass, Description, road signage only or without anything at all.
And we even went cyber-hiking in Second Life (right, that still exists).
So, what's the bottom line?
It turned out that this course is and was a lot more interesting than I had hoped for. Aside often expressed opinions, I don't see that modern technologies like online maps and navigation systems make our spacial senses worse – on contrary: I believe we have more sense of orientation than ever before. Looking at electronic maps with exact user localization all the time is radically changing our ability to get lost! On the other hand: there's electronic help for that as well.
On the technical side of things there are three issues: #1 Battery (there's never enough power) and #2 Bad interface design and #3 Not-so-well-thought-trough software.
Using an app for a couple of hours really shows any programming weaknesses pretty clear. I believe developers should use their location based apps outside (aside from & cheers to komoot whose developers indeed seem to use their own app outdoors).
if you're developing a location-based app: GO AFK!