The Digitization of Travel: Part 8 – Navigating

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So you have your airline tickets, immunizations are done, visas are stamped in your passport and you’re on the ground in a strange new land. How we navigate the journey has changed dramatically and is changing more rapidly every day. Paper maps, traditionally a must-have item on almost any trip are quickly losing their dominance to portable electronic devices. Google Maps has literally almost mapped the world, augmented reality is adding an entirely new dimension to information available and borders are opening up like never before. How travelers now get around is something every person working in travel needs to consider.

Aaron Frankel, owner of Groovy Map, who has made his living for more than a decade designing and selling traditional maps, sees the future of navigation being totally digital and is preparing for the change. “When roaming fees cease to exist, when using your phone/iPad anywhere you travel is the same rate as home or cheaper, that’s when we’ll see a massive shift to apps (applications) on the iPad and which is going to become essential travel kit.”

An innovation many feel will have a massive impact on how digital devices are used while traveling is augmented reality. This entails a mobile device’s ability to be held up to the view in front of you (along a street for instance), then using its camera, it overlays information about businesses, temples, and areas you are looking at. Everything from historical information to food specials can be displayed.

Frankel, while currently depending on paper maps for his livelihood, is in love with his new iPad and it’s got him dreaming of the future and eager to develop mapping products for it. “The iPad allows almost the same experience of using a paper map for orientation as the surface area is big enough to zoom and navigate with.” “Given the technological advantages of augmented reality, true positioning on the maps, language translation and ‘can I have…’ functionality, it will really assist independent travel in ways it could not have before. Walking tours with commentary as you walk, “look at the building with the green awning to your right…” will work like the museum guides but instead of you having to input what you are looking at, the GPS signals will trigger the info you are most interested in whether historical, architectural or, cultural.”

Guidebook writer Trevor Ranges loves traditional maps and new technologies, uses them all, and sees advantages on all sides. Whether working or traveling for fun, he embraces everything that’s available. “I have come to rely more and more on technology before, during, and after my travels. This is primarily because of the ease at which a wealth of information can be gathered on the internet. Prior to heading out to a destination, I will book rooms online, using websites that show locations of hotels in order to find a place in a suitable location and user generated reviews to determine which hotels seem the best in their price range. Once on the ground in a location I tend to be a bit more old-school, using paper maps marked up with a pen, though the locations I intend to visit are often researched beforehand on the internet. I tend to avoid using other travel guides when I’m working, but smart-phone applications, including Google Maps are proving indispensible. I actually like getting lost, but often wish I had my iPhone with me when I have left it behind, particularly as I’m currently developing guidebook applications and must tag all locations with a GPS device. I still like the paper maps because they easily fit in a pocket and can be written on more easily than smart-phone maps. That said, as the smart-phone maps can tell you your exact location and can use sortable search criteria to find, say, a nearby sushi restaurant or a hotel between $20-30, I think people will be utilizing these interactive maps more and more in the upcoming years.”

Photographer Lester Ledesma also uses augmented reality and his smart-phone while working and traveling. While he gets benefits from these modern technologies, he enjoys strolling, exploring and finding things on his own, but understands the power and ease it brings to causal travelers. “Many places in Southeast Asia have been documented on the internet well enough that it’s so much more easy to just pull out some information on a smart-phone than, say, explore the main road of Vientiane to look for a good restaurant. The fact that you can check Google Maps wherever you are and get up-to-the-minute information on nearby locations is amazing. For ordinary travelers, I’d say this is a big convenience.”

While seemingly having everything in the palm of your hand whenever you want, the Anantara Golden Triangle’s John Roberts thinks there may be a danger of travelers putting too much dependence on their digital devices, “Safety may become an issue as the illusion of having contact with the outside world may cause independent tourists to become over confident.” “If the phone breaks, if taken or it evens runs out of battery they may find themselves over extended.”

Roberts also sees navigating borders becoming much easier and less time consuming in the near future. “A great advantage that could happen would be ASEAN or a Mekong sub-region visa that would allow tourists to travel from country-to-country with minimized immigration hold-ups through the adoption of electronic passport technology.”

Publisher and former guidebook writer Mason Florence remembers a day and age not long ago when people actually had to hit the road to find out what was hot and happening. “When I first went to Vietnam people only knew the main destinations. Then someone tells you about a quaint destination and one by one the places get found by the backpackers and eventually through the years they make their way into guidebooks.” “Pre-internet you waited for info to appear in a magazine or guidebook or through the coconut telegraph, at the right pace. You needed to do your homework, you needed to hang out at travelers’ cafés, talk on public buses, basically acquire that valuable information involved communicating with human beings, fellow travelers and literally look for people you were crossing paths with who are coming from where you’re going. That’s gone now.”

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