Designing Presence: Motorcycling and the GPS

My partner and I vacation by traversing the West on two wheels. Two years ago I bought a Garmin 76C handheld to improve my skills as the Navigator. The first time I used it while motorcycling, I was blown away. That little moving dot on the map screen was US on the ROAD. Wow! And hey, I can look up where the next gas station is. Cool! This device represents a particularly powerful form of technological presence that is mostly fabulous.

Say we’re riding over a curvacious mountain pass and we get caught behind a pack of slow moving Harley’s. (Sadly this happens all too often.) Well I can zoom into our location and discover that after two more curves is a long straight-away. Reporting this to the Captain allows her to relax her passing vigilance a bit, knowing the opportunity will come soon enough. (We passed 7 in one fell swoop last Friday. If only the Harley boys knew that two ladies were zooming by… )

Another great use is tracking mileage and distances for our rather weeny fuel tank capacity. Since the bike has no fuel gauge it’s up to us to keep track of when to fuel up again. It’s fabulous to be able to see that the next town is precisely 35.67 miles away.

But as anyone who has used a GPS long will tell you, don’t rely too heavily on the Garmin mapSource in data. This is true for both directions (turn left on Miller St. Ooops – it’s a one way!) and for looking up services like gas stations and Starbucks. (Ooops – that Starbucks was actually on Columbia DRIVE not Columbian WAY.) The weirdest part of the GPS’s inaccuracies is how it challenges you to override your human senses and believe the technology, putting faith into a machine over human intelligence and intuition. It took me about a year of using one to stop trusting the device when my perceptions were telling me otherwise.

What I do now is look up a lot of information on the web and program it into the GPS before leaving on a trip. Thus I discovered an incredible little coffee house in the tiny town of Harlowton, Montana and was able to guide us to it — as the GPS had no data what so ever about this part of the state. But since you can’t know in advance what all your needs will be in all locations at all times — one can text message Google (46645) and request a search. For example: “Missoula, MT Starbucks.” A few moments later a text message from Google provides the locations of two Starbucks and I had time to program one into the GPS in transit, guiding us to the correct spot. This technique, although cumbersome for using two devices, is much more trustworthy and accurate then Garmin’s MapSource. (Which didn’t show either Starbucks.)

That is — as long as your in cell range. 😉

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Designing Presence: The many problems with Garmin’s GPS ecosystem

I’ve been using a Garmin 76CS handheld GPS for two years for motorcycle touring. For the kind of riding we do, which is a on lot smaller highways and roads, the interstate only mapping software pre-installed on the GPS is not sufficient. Garmin currently has a sweet business model in charging another $150 for a CD of comprehensive mapping data. They release a new CD every two years or so and — as far as I know — offer no upgrade discount to owners of the previous version. The moment the CD is released it’s out of date. Change is happening every day, but data on a disc is fixed in time the moment the CD is burned, packaged and distributed.

To plan a route using the City Select data, Garmin provides “MapSource” software. It is some of the most frustrating software I have ever used. My initial trip planning process is done online using Google or Yahoo maps and various web sites to determine travel distances, motels, highway construction, fuel stops, etc. These online mapping tools are easy and intuitive (and google maps just got easier because it now allows you to drag and relocate a travel path). They require no user instructions. They just work.

Contrast this to building a trip with MapSource. The software is an unintuitive frustrating mess. Something as simple as routing a day’s journey turns into a 20 minute time suck because I can’t figure out how to “end” the route. One would think clicking on “new route” and then clicking the motel’s address from the previous nights route would initiate a new route from that location. But several times I got to the end of the the “new route” only to see that somehow these miles were added to the previous days route. So instead of having two routes of 300 miles, I had one route of 600. Why? It just shouldn’t be hard for the user to define one route from another. This is one example of at least 10 simple flaws in the user interface of this software. Garmin, did you perform any usability testing before releasing this product? Or do you just expect me to use the owners manual each time? I read it last year and the year before, but I shouldn’t have to read it a third time. I don’t have to with Google. It just works. It’s easy.

I can’t wait for GPS technology to become standard on cell phone. I can’t wait for the day that I can save the route I just built on Google maps on my desktop or laptop, then access the route through my cell phone using mobile Google maps and GPS. Want to know if there’s a Starbucks nearby? Yes, I can do that using my current Garmin 76CS and the $150 City Map data, but it’s out of date. Starbucks may have built 3 new stores since the CD was released. With my GPS enabled cell phone, I’ll be able to do a web search for Starbucks, click a map link and have the GPS lock in to the data point and guide me there — relevent information in an easy format for me to use literally on the fly. Ready for a motorcycle break and want to know if there’s a park nearby? Garmin breaks that kind of data into a category that seems to be mostly populated with churchs and schools. The day will come when I’ll be able to do a Google seach (or use some other cool mobile software) for a local park, get the location via Google maps and again, have my cell phone GPS guide me there. When that day comes — and my guess is we’re a couple of years away — Garmin’s business model is going to undergo a serious hit on several fronts. They won’t be able to hide behind badly designed software any longer, they won’t be able to charge ridiculous sums for aggregating data onto a CD, and come to think of it, they probably won’t be able to charge $400 for a hand held device that only accesses proprietary data either. Did I say I can’t wait?

Future Presence: Planning a motorcycle trip

My partner and I “vacation” by touring the west on our motorcycle.

The art of riding

Our trips generally cover 9 days/8 nights and 6-7 states or provinces and are intensively planned.We depart with an itinerary that covers daily mileage, motel reservations, highway construction reports, and where we’ll gas up (only relevant if we’re traveling through a remote stretch that could suck our 3.5 gallon tank dry.)

The trip planning is my job and I love it. When I was a kid I used to plan imaginary trips for my family and our trailer using a road atlas and a KOA or Good Sam directory — so clearly planning is in my DNA. The tools I use now are far more sophisticated thanks to the internets, but the process can still easily take 8 – 12 hours spread out over several days or weeks.

My planning begins with paper maps, Google and/or Yahoo maps, Kayak.com, TripAdvisor.com and the websites of the chain motels. Google and Yahoo have made great strides in the past year, incorporating features that link together a string of routes. What they both still seem to be lacking is an easy way to save these routes. Kayak is awesome for providing a list of available hotels with real time data about room availability and price. TripAdvisor is invaluable due to it’s user reviews; many times I’ve chosen say the local Comfort Inn over the local Best Western because of customers (like myself) taking the time to encapsulate their experience.

I’ll have an idea of one or two places we want to visit, but the trajectory of the trip is wide open at the start. Our main variable is seat time, which varies dramatically depending on road type. We can cover 450 miles on the freeway or 300 miles on smaller highways in the same 7 or 8 hour period. The second variable is a destination with a motel that provides high speed internet access, a flexible cancellation policy and a paved parking lot. The interplay between these two variables is the creative element of trip planning.

The first iteration of the trip takes 4-6 hours. There are only so many ways to leave Seattle, but once you get a day or two away the 360 degree arc opens up endless choices. Sometimes I’ll have two possible legs going simultaniously, waiting to see which will have the more interesting resolution as we begin to head towards home.

Once the trip circle is complete, I’ll sit down with my partner to get her thoughts. She invariably brings up gas and construction questions that I haven’t thought about in the excitement of planning. These are not sexy questions, but of course crucial to real time enjoyment once we’re on the road. Gas is usually pretty easy to ID; I’ll type in a location + gas into google and get a pretty clear answer either through a business listing or a recreational site.

Construction is trickier due to the variety of approaches state highway departments use for imparting this information on their websites. Montana for instance, provides one long scrolling page with highway numbers in one column and a description involving mileposts or towns in another. This is a cumbersome format to scan and interpret — especially if you aren’t from Montana. Wyoming on the other hand, starts with a map that drills into regions where helpful icons display construction spots. Even with Wyoming’s easier UI, getting a clear description of the actual road conditions can be impossible without a phone call. I dream of the day where a cadre motorcycle riders will snap photos or real time construction conditions and geo tag them to a common flickr map along with a quick statement.

Just bad

The truth about trip planning though, is that one key element can never be planned in advance: Weather.

“Isolated thunderstorm” in utah

For all my intricate planning, we have so far only successfully completed 1 of 4 itineraries. (The successful trip was the first trip of course, leading us to believe it could always be so easy!) So far all my hours spent crafting the perfect trip, usually the moment arrives where I’m in holed up in the hotel room re-routing the remainder of the trip to avoid wind or rainstorms (although we seem to get caught in both anyways!) This is why broadband is essential for our travel. Wifi is getting easier to find on the road (even McDonalds offers it) and is essential for making daily and sometimes hourly choices about our next move.