Location-Based Services in 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of location-based services lately. The first thing that occurs to me: nobody talks about location-based services anymore. There are just ‘services’.

It occurs to me that Location, in and of itself, is not an ‘experience’, per se. It is an enabler of experiences. Allow me to explain.

There are two critical aspects that make up a location-based service:

  1. The ability to accurately detect the real-world location of the user (or, more specifically, the user’s device) and communicate this back to a service in real-time.
  2. The ability to accurately place this, and other, locations of interest on a map.

Take a classic “location-based service” such as Foursquare, where users ‘check-in’ to venues, stores or other locations with the app on their smartphone when they visit the store physically. The location of the user is the enabler that allows the check-in to take place, and the rendering of a map of the area is the enabler that allows the check-in to be viewed and consumed later.

Location itself isn’t the point or motivator for the experience. It’s just what makes the experience possible.

Hence the term “location-based service” has fallen a bit out of favour. Location is no longer an exciting differentiator among mobile experiences, and the location is very rarely the real point of the ‘service’. The point is always something else: find out how good a hotel is (TripAdvisor), review a restaurant (Yelp), find a new place for lunch (Foursquare), find deals nearby (Groupon, iBeacon), etc.

So the thing to remember about Location: it’s not an experience. Location is an enabler of experiences.

Apple Maps and the Tall Poppy Syndrome

Ever since Apple launched iOS6 with their brand new Apple Maps, the web has been flooded with reports, posts, tweets and even special tumbler blogs dedicated to pointing out how ‘catastrophically bad’ Apple’s Maps product is.

The cacophony reached a crescendo on Friday with this post from the normally respectable Business Insider, pointing out how the portion of map used for the icon for the Apple Maps app isn’t 100% cartographically accurate. The freaking icon.

Is it just me, or is this getting stupid?

Sure, it’s the first version of a product and they have some work to do. We can all point out problems and issues with it. I work for Nokia building Nokia Maps, and I know how complex a map and navigation product is. But are these kinds of relentless and ultimately pointless attacks proving anything?

My seventh grade science teacher used to call it the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. In a field of poppy flowers, when one poppy grows taller than all the others, the other poppies do whatever they can to pull it back down again.

That’s what’s happening here. We have all sat by in wonder, awe and respect as Apple charted their amazing course to recovery to become the most valuable company on the planet. And yet now the world that rocketed Apple to success is trying to pull that poppy down again.

The mob is fickle.

The Germans have a fantastic word in their language: Schadenfreude (n). Literally translated it means the happiness you feel at experiencing the misfortune of others. There’s even an adjective form: schadenfroh.

It seems the entire tech world is enjoying seeing Apple squirm after the barrage of negative feedback and criticism over the Maps product. A whole sea of schadenfroh tech journalists, bloggers and consumers smiling to each other and insisting that they could have done better or would have advised Apple differently.

Even after Tim Cook’s public apology people were quick to point out that “Apple apologies are actually not that infrequent”, or absurdly “That would never have happened if Steve Jobs were still alive.”

Even as the iPhone5 broke all kinds of sales records at its launch last weekend, it clearly wasn’t ‘good enough’, as Wall Street was disappointed, and that makes tech bloggers sad.

It all kind of reminds me of a track from William Shatner’s classic album, Has Been. He says:

Riding on their armchairs
They dream of wealth and fame
Fear is their companion
Nintendo is their game
Never done jack and two thumbs Don
And sidekick don’t say dick
They laugh at others failures
Though they have not done shit

Beyond the flat digital map: what’s next for digital map services

Babylonian stone map of the world.Babylonian map of the world, dated around 6BC. Source: Wikipedia

The map has come a long way since the Babylonians carved pictographic maps of their surroundings on large chunks of stone.

Ever since the appearance of the first digital maps many companies and products have appeared with the mission to produce better quality, more complete and more usable digital maps and navigation aids; among them Nokia Maps.

Since then, digital maps have become more detailed, more customisable, more accurate and more complete. Maps have become more visually engaging, with realistic 3D views of cities and countryside to add to satellite and terrain views of the world. But whatever visual abstraction, the digital maps today are still essentially a purely digital representation of their paper map ancestors: they are static. Sure, you have the ability to add different layers of information to the map or to customise the view (zoom and pan) – but these are just different ways of ‘holding’ the same map.

The vast amount of map-related innovation seen in mapping applications today in terms of the map visualisation have been in visualising data on top of the map. The very first Google Maps mash-up (Housing Maps) was a layer of real estate data on top of a plain, 2D map. Only a few products have taken visible steps to indicate a desire to innovate around how the map operates, and how a user operates with the map.

Two examples of innovation in this area are Apple, with their recently announced Map platform, and a new feature on Nokia Maps called “City Exploration”, which turns the map itself into a discovery entry point.

Apple Maps

Long before Apple officially announced the new map platform they will release in iOS6 to replace the incumbent Google Maps as the default map provider it was clear they were moving in the direction of building their own map product. A couple of interesting patents, submitted last August, reveal a plan to produce what they call “schematic maps”, or what we might call a ‘back-of-a-napkin’ doodle map. They describe a map where traditional map must-haves like scale and information density take a back-seat to essential functionality: how do I get from here to point B.

It works like this: instead of producing a map that contains a completely accurate rendering of the surface of the earth, a to-scale street network and all the businesses, landmarks and whatever points of interest that might exist in a given space (the direct digital evolution of a traditional topographical map or street atlas), the “schematic map” looks more like something you would draw for a friend on the back of a beer coaster to help them get to the next pub: a simple line describing the streets and turns you will walk (most likely not to scale), maybe one or two major landmarks to help with navigation, and a big “x-marks-the-spot”.

Apple schematic maps.Apple schematic maps concept mockups. Source: Patent application.

This is a radically different approach to maps because it challenges the deep-rooted assumption that a good map is always to scale, includes as much peripheral information as possible and has a north that points to the top of the page. Here, they literally re-draw the map using a completely different abstraction; one that isn’t bound to the reality of the streets and curves of the earth.

Nokia Maps – City Exploration

In a new feature recently released on maps.nokia.com, we make the map itself a discovery entry point by simply leveraging the existing cartographic symbols and text on the map surface as a new kind of navigational control.

We’ve learned from years of working with maps that a common use case is simple, often quite random, exploration of the world. In the same way people used to spin a globe around or flick through the pages of a world atlas to explore the cities and countries of the world, today people use digital maps to just see how the cities and countries of the world come together.

With City Exploration, you can move your mouse over any part of the map (on a country or continent zoom level) to dive right into detailed information nearly all major cities. Live traffic information, city facts, public transport information and 3D views are just some of the content that you can explore, right from the map.

City Exploration on maps.nokia.comCity Exploration on maps.nokia.com.

Now, the surface of the map starts to become the whole atlas, instead of part of the contents.

The arms race between major mapping platforms and consumer products in the past years has been largely centered around data: more, more accurate and better quality. As data becomes cheaper and more and more a commodity, the next source of differentiation will be a fundamental change in how we use and view maps. These two examples show the start of the shift, but there is much more to come.

Where Conference 2012 – Highlights

The Valley’s preeminent conference for Location-based services, Where (formerly Where 2.0), was on again at the start of April in San Francisco. The usual suspects were in attendance, with the likes of Google, ESRI, MapQuest and Foursquare holding prominent positions on the exhibition floor and presenting several keynotes. I was there of course with Nokia Location & Commerce, representing our Where Platform and location applications portfolio and our flagship product Nokia Maps.

Many of the themes of the presentations were covering similar material, I noticed a few main themes coming out of the presentations in general.

Open Street Maps and other alternatives to Google Maps

A common discussion was around the alternatives to the Google Maps API as a location platform for online and mobile applications. There has been lots of talk recently about Google’s decision to charge services for extensive usage of the location API, and many organisations are searching for an alternative. Open Street Maps, although not present at the conference themselves, were talked of often as “the” alternative to Google Maps. Although many other paid and free alternatives exist, including Nokia’s Nokia Maps API, OSM seemed to be by far the most talked about.

Custom Maps and open map data

A trend is emerging around creating custom maps. Products like Mapbox are providing products that let you literally build your own map. Using Open Street Maps data, Mapbox lets you design/customise everything about the map design: labels, colours, catographic elements, zoom levels and everything else. They then not only provide the completed map, but even make it into tiles and host them.

The takeaway is that there is a trend emerging whereby people and organisations are placing much more value on the map design itself in terms of building or customising a product or service. Even as we see visual developments in the map design and style of the major map platform providers (like the recent visual updates on the Nokia Maps map style), we’ll see in the future countless different map styles and designs; customised both for differentiated visual appeal and also for the product or service’s specific use case.

Layers are dead

After the very first Google Maps “mash-up” emerged location-based services focused heavily on placing data on a map. Whatever data you had, if it had a location, you could suddenly turn it into a layer on a map. Most experiences visualised all the location data as “pins” on the map layer. Other visual techniques emerged such as heatmaps or clusters, but essentially it was just like it’s real-world equivalent: a collection of pins on a map.

What is becoming clear now is that just a layer of data on a map is neither new nor innovative. Innovative location services will not just focus on collecting location-based objects, but will focus on utilising location as an object attribute to create smart and meaningful connections between these objects, and to use them to create compelling experiences. Further, when it comes to mobile, it is no longer enough to use the user’s current position to put the user in the middle of that layer of data that you’ve put on the map. Experiences need to use the current position to further contextualise a hyper-relevant experience based on the user’s location, friends, history and profile.

“Engineering Serendipity”

Serendipity has been the perennial favourite buzzword in the valley since the start of the Foursquare/checkin era. This year the talk was around how to use the wealth of location-aware activity data streams available via services such as Foursquare or Facebook Places to create meaningful online or mobile experiences that enhance real-world experiences. One such service, Meet Gatsby, is using Foursquare checkins to introduce people to each other who are nearby each other and share common connections or interests.

Everyone seemed vaguely aware of the obvious paradox in “engineering” serendipity: the deliberate, conscious attempt to spark or even force spontaneous events…

Like a local

Everyone wants to feel like they’re a “true local”. That’s a promise we’ve been trying to fulfill with Nokia Maps for over three years. Now, the trend has hit the mainstream more than ever with tons of startups focussing on building experiences that combine user’s local knowledge with their location, profile and social graph to provide local place recommendations, directions and stories.

These services will build on the successes of products like foodspotting and Yelp to harness the power of the crowd to collect stories, photos and moments that allow people to see the world around them through the eyes of the locals. Review services like Qype, Yelp and so on have of course been around for ages… new services will combine reviews and photos with social connections and user profiles to provide better recommendations of places and things to do. We also see other services coming up that don’t focus specifically on place discovery: services like Lumatic, which focuses on providing contextual, natural pedestrian directions using photos, landmarks and stories as the essential wayfinding descriptions.

As mentioned above, the success of these products will be based on much more than building a huge database of content: content itself will not be enough. Successful services will augment various content types with social, location and activity information to provide more meaningful, immersive and contextual experiences.

Big Data

As the available public and private datasets become ever-larger, crunching the data to find the meaning and connections is key. As such, a big focus has been on dealing with large datasets. Specifically, Hadoop and Pig were talked about a lot.

Around Here Wiki: put your surroundings on the map

My second Windows 7 Phone app is here!

I’ve recently been experimenting with developing small apps for the Windows Phone 7 ecosystem. My second app, now available in the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, takes Wikipedia articles in the area around you and puts them on the map.

Discover what’s around you with a tap. The Around Here Wiki app puts you and all the world encyclopedia Wikipedia on the map: together.

Have you ever walked through an unfamilar city and wondered: “What’s that old building over there?” Just pull out the Around Here Wiki, and you’ll find out.

“Is there anything interesting around here to look at?” Around Here Wiki can tell you.

Around Here Wiki is clean, simple and no-fuss. No fancy effects or unnecessary information – just the facts. Want to know more? Just follow the link to the full article on Wikipedia.org.

You’ll always know what’s around you.

Around Here Wiki - Screenshot 1Around Here Wiki - Screenshot 1

Around Here Wiki - Screenshot 1Around Here Wiki - Screenshot 1

Download it for your Windows 7 Phone here. Don’t forget to rate it!

GPS, turn-by-turn guidance and location-based services: what are they doing to my brain?

Turn by turn GPS guidance on Ovi Maps on a motorcycle

There’s a motorcycle accessories store that I go to quite a lot. It’s quite a distance away – 10 kilometers through the city or so – but I like it because it has the best range and quite good prices. Anyway, I was there the other day buying some new touring pants, and as I got back on the bike to head home I noticed that the battery in my phone was dead. I have a GPS-holder mounted to the handlebar, and I use the GPS and Nokia’s Ovi Maps turn-by-turn navigation whenever I’m on the bike to get me around Berlin and Germany. Not this time, though – I was on my own.

I wasn’t worried: I must have driven this way 10 times before. Two blocks later I missed the first turn. After that, I stood for two minutes at another intersection wondering which way to go. Without my GPS I was sadly, sadly helpless.

I think I am losing the ability to remember the way to places. This is, I think, even impacting how easily I can find places.

To be more specific, I think I am losing my ability to process and remember the spatial relationships between places and things. This manifests itself in situations like the story above, where I found it difficult to get home without my GPS turned on spewing out directions at me. I also notice it when someone tries to explain verbally driving or walking directions to somewhere. “So you’ll wanna walk all the way down this street, then take the left by the big red warehouse, then the second left. After that you’ll come to a bridge…” After the second or third instruction, I’m lost.

It never used to be this way. 10 years ago I could look at a paper city map or street directory and then drive across town on my gut navigational feel. Coming home would be a breeze – I would know the way back without missing a beat. Now I’m so used to having someone tell me when to turn and how fast to drive (my GPS), I’m completely helpless without it.

What’s happened to me?

We hear a lot these days about how our relationship with memory, language and concentration is continually changing with our increased usage of and reliance on the internet. In his book The Shallows author Nicholas Carr explores how the prevalence of the internet as an information medium is actually changing the ways our brains work: our attention span is shorter, concentration more sporadic. We tend to speed-read and skim texts for keywords, and our consciousness seems now hardwired to navigate through hyperlinks: our attention flashes off on parallels based on keywords or themes in the text. Nearly no-one native to this, Carr predicts, will have the ability to read “Of war and peace”, for example. Their brain just won’t be able to process it: too long, too complex, too ‘heavy’.

I see this happening in my brain too; but based on my experience with my GPS what I am now really interested in is how the internet and mobile technologies, specifically location based services, impact and influence how we interact with places, and how they change our concept of spatial awareness.

To go back to the GPS example: I think relying on a GPS for so long has made me less reliant on my own conscious awareness, and subsequently my own memory. When you don’t have a small computer spurting out instructions at you you’re forced to, well, watch where you’re going. As you drive you observe street signs and landmarks, and you use these to make navigational decisions: you mentally build spatial connections between points in space around you as you ‘save’ the route in your mind. Driving home along the same route is easy because you have constructed a mental model of the way you’ve come. When you drive with turn-by-turn guidance, even when walking, you don’t do this so much. You disconnect from the scene; you’re not making navigational decisions anymore, you’re just doing what you’re told. Instead of a constant spatial feedback loop between you and the world, you are simply driving blind.

I think this changes the way you interact with the world around you in a very fundamental way. You become less the ‘driver’, in a sense, and more of a passenger. One thing I love about motorcycles as opposed to cars is that when you drive in a car, you’re constantly enclosed in a protective shell; this isolating bubble between you and the world. You move with this massive metal encasing through the scene, but you are not part of the scene. With a motorcycle, you’re not enclosed in anything (only your helmet). You can feel and smell the air around you. You’re part of the scene. Driving on GPS, I think, adds another layer to that bubble around you: you really are absent from the scene.

One could propose an experiment to attempt to measure the impact of relying on turn-by-turn guidance on how people interact with the world around them: take 12 participants, and split them into pairs. All pairs get the same navigational task: get from point A to point B in the city (the route should be unknown to all participants). Three pairs get a GPS with turn-by-turn guidance, three pairs get an old-fashioned street directory, and the last three pairs get nothing. At the end, quiz participants on how much they remember about the natural environment. How many Starbucks did they pass? What was the name of the main street? And so on. I predict the people navigating with no assistance would remember the most valuable details about the journey, and those navigating with GPS will struggle to remember much of anything meaningful at all.

I’m quite sure it goes much deeper than this, and that I’m just scratching the surface. For example, how do services like Foursquare or Facebook Places change how we interact with physical places? With the mass of place reviews, comments, checkins and other data available on the web, how is our perception of the quality of actual places effected? How does it change our concepts of what is good or bad, popular or unpopular, trendy or crappy? With the web on your desktop or mobile you have the ability to experience and interact with places other than the physical location you’re sitting in. What does that do for how you perceive the place?

As location-based services continue to mature and grow and penetrate our lives in deeper ways, understanding how users interact with products on an emotional and psychological level will be a key to building services that provide meaningful interactions. It’s also important to understand the effect these services have on our own concepts of spatial awareness and spatial cognitive processing: how do we interact with and feel about places, and how is this altered when we use these services? Understand this, and we can create experiences with meaning.