Striding along a narrow footpath that slices up the side of a steep Lakeland fell, you pause to admire the majestic view – “is that Bow Fell in the background? How much further until I start heading for the tarn?” you muse. Pondering this, you pull out your well-worn and trusty Ordnance Survey map and check your bearings – perhaps you double check using your compass – reassured, you continue on your way, revelling in the natural beauty and the feeling of being away from it all.
Now, I’m no outdoor purist (ok, maybe just a little), but I will always maintain that the Great Outdoors is there for everyone to enjoy and the ability to get away from our day-to-day lives requires nothing more than a few steps in the right direction. However, if you are heading ‘out’ it’s definitely a good idea to know where you are going, what the terrain will be like and what conditions you might experience before packing accordingly and heading on your merry way. All of these things have traditionally been the realm of the map and a few acquired skills, and there is something very self-assuring about huddling over a simple folded sheet of paper knowing that you can take yourself off, have a great experience and still find your way safely back no matter what the conditions.
However, this is a picture that is changing with the advance of technology – reliance on learnt ‘traditional’ skills such as map reading and compass bearings (the ones on colourful string with an actual needle) is making way for digital alternatives and it has become commonplace to see GPS devices and smartphones out in the wild ‘helping’ to navigate. One recent addition to this is Ordnance Survey’s 3D UK mapping service – essentially a service that enables subscribed users to digitally explore a landscape before setting out.
Whilst initially this might seem like territory dominated by technology companies such as Google, Ordnance Survey’s aim is that their offering will help make a more “enjoyable, accessible and safe outdoors” by helping people “see and understand the landscape they are going out to explore”. The service enables a route to be plotted on interactive 2D topographic maps (part of Ordnance Survey’s excellent existing digital platform) and then see these rendered in 3D – essentially providing an additional layer of information showing detail and risks that that might be missed on conventional 2D maps. By having a better appreciation of an intended environment, the hope is that people will be more easily able to assess whether their goals are within their capabilities, or how best to equip themselves when they are out.
As someone who lives and works in a digital world (but can’t get ‘out’ enough), I’m definitely of the mindset that any technology encouraging and assisting people with a safer experience when venturing outside is a good thing. However, I also sincerely hope that traditional (and undoubtedly life-saving) skills are not overlooked or lost to the advance and inevitable leaning on such technology – batteries run out, electronic devices don’t play well with water and I’m sure we’ve all experienced enough ‘optimal’ GPS routing in the past to know that when it really matters being able to rely on your own knowledge and abilities is unrivalled and can be very empowering. It’s also important to remember that exploration plays an important role in enjoyment – I wonder how much one’s immersion and sense of adventure in a ‘new’ landscape is altered when they have already been there, albeit in a digital fly-through?
All this said, it’s really encouraging to see that organisations such as Ordnance Survey are embracing and utilising technology to help encourage, engage and empower people venturing outside. And let’s face it – the UK is really a stunning place however you look at it – so for me, playing with a carefully designed and crafted platform such as this – augmenting routes, details and data onto beautiful 3D landscape can’t help but inspire – great work.
(Although I do have to add that one of the ‘secrets’ to some of the best outdoor experiences I’ve ever had was to grab my map, get out there and explore the ‘real’ 3D).