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Features Fun Maps Maps

Post-paper: where next for future map design?

Markus Ort is the head of future maps design at HERE. We recently covered a presentation he made at the Visualized conference in New York, and wanted to know more about his work. Just a couple of weeks ago, we said “We need new maps”; but what are those maps like and how do they work?

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Markus has been at HERE for about six years, working on a variety of projects before getting to his current position: “A dream job!” he tells us excitedly.

There are many aspects to a topic as broad as ‘future maps’, but much of it is about re-interpreting and challenging long established paradigms around map creation and consumption: the 2000+ years of experiencing maps as paper objects that you hold in your hands and look down onto. We all have habits and expectations of maps that are mainly defined by the up- and down-sides of the analogue medium, which shouldn’t be driving our experience with maps in a digital era.

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“Our understanding of the nature of maps is still in the analogue era,” says Markus. “We’ve not reaped the potential of digital yet.”

At the same time, there is continuity.

“From the dawn of history, maps have been a way for us to explain and, in some ways ‘own’ the world around us, and to orientate ourselves within the world,” Markus explains.

“In essence, people still have the same needs today, and we can serve them a lot more personally and powerfully. The map can be your concierge; your historian; your personal assistant and companion. The sort of map that you need for sightseeing is quite different to the map you need for finding your way to a specific destination. Based on time, the user’s history, intention, activity, and environment, the map will adjust – and there is really no need to see the exact same map twice.

Markus talks about some of the principles, which drive the work in the future maps division. Each principle is equally important and a good map experience relies on all of them.

“Maps should be truly interactive in their design and behaviour and should noticeably and intelligently respond to any interaction.”

The first generations of digital maps still treat the maps as documents, more-or-less static objects that we’re viewing through our apps. Markus believes that the very nature of the map we’re on should invite us into a ‘dialogue’ and could change at our beckoning.

“A map should focus on the essentials of the moment.”

“The sort of map you need depends on your activity and how you are moving; in a car, walking or on a bicycle. Whether it’s morning, afternoon or evening. Whether you’re close to home or in a new place. If you’re using a computer, a smartphone, an in-dash panel or your digital watch. And million other combinations and possibilities.”

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Our smartphones and other devices already have the necessary sensors and information. It knows your location, the time and your speed through its sensors. You might grant it access to your calendar, history and circle of friends. The map could use all that to change according to the circumstances.

Routes should be planned using more than you know. “There’s a park near where I live. During the day, it’s a good short-cut: it’s a lovely, grassy space. There are families there and people walking their dogs. At night, it becomes a different place, and it’s really not a good idea to go there. The map should know all that, and guide you accordingly.”

And very naturally, it matters where you are, when you look at a map. “If you’ve just checked into a hotel in a foreign city, based on time of day, the map may hint at specific things to explore in the area or set subtle focus on worthwhile local food in walking distance.”

“Our maps should meaningfully interpret and apply the principles of the real world.”

You’ve probably already seen Live Sight on HERE apps for Windows Phone, but the ambitions of the Immersive Maps element of Markus’ team’s work goes a lot further than current augmented reality efforts.

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This might mean changing the map according to what angle you hold it at. If you’re planning a route or looking where to go, then you probably look down on your map. If you then tilt the map upwards, straight in front of you, then the context might decide if that means you’re asking directions or looking for information about what is around you.

“Time is a very powerful dimension to enrich our maps.”

Maps are out of date almost as soon as they are made. They reflect the area as it was when the mapmaker visited it, not how it is now. Or even, how it will be when we arrive at the location in question.

If you are travelling to another city and it’s going to be rush hour, dark and raining when you get there – and half the places on the map will be shut, then the map, the route and any suggested places to go should reflect that future state of affairs.

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“We’re working on fundamentally new maps,” Markus concludes, “Re-structuring the data, so that any possible combination and expression can then be ‘rebuilt’ in real-time, according to the person, their needs and the situation.”

In short, the maps of the future will be as varied as the people who use them, and the millions of different reasons they might refer to those maps.

Sounds exciting – and we’re looking forward to all the steps in that journey.

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