Maps, layers of meaning and location-based content

I’ve always been interested in maps. My parents were immigrants to Australia and for most of my childhood it was just my parents, sister and me. But I still felt connected to my extended family overseas. I remember lying on my bedroom floor with an atlas looking at all the places where we had family. And because I’d been fortunate enough to visit most of them, those little dots and roads and rivers were all imbued with memories.

In a few years, I began to appreciate that there was more to maps than just the end product. That maps also spoke about who created them. When I was in grade 3, we learned about geography. I asked a teacher about the lines on the map (the political boundaries) and whether they could change over time. She misinterpreted my question and laughed, saying the lines weren’t really there in real life. But they are. Someone dictates where one state ends and another begins. It also made me wonder, who made maps and how did they decide what information was included, and what stayed out?

As I grew older and began to travel on my own, maps took on a much more utilitarian role. But I still appreciated the hidden layers that existed: between the map maker, the map end-user and the location itself. So much so that during my travels, I’ve collected many maps of the places I’ve visited. Some quirky, some interesting but all providing a different account of that place compared to the usual tourist guides.

“A free map for young travellers made by locals”, Brussels, Belgium

In 2010 I travelled to Brussels via the Eurostar lured by the Comics Museum, art, fries and waffles (in no particular order). Not long after arriving I managed to find this fabulous map made by locals.

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When most people travel they want to go where the locals go. Hopefully avoiding expensive tourist traps while also experiencing the best aspects of a place.

Things I love about this map:

– Despite being for “young travellers” it’s inclusive of different ages, background and interests. There are tips from a 16 year old on the best 360 degree view, another from a 65yr old on where to get good Belgian food, and where a gay bar area is located with free WiFi.

– They use direct quotes from locals which makes the map feel authentic, friendly and personal.

– This tip: “Be yourself, especially if you’re weird. Acting cool may work in Paris, but not in Brussels.”

– And this one: “Drink the real sour Gueuze beer. Tourists say it tastes like vomiting beer instead of drinking it, but they don’t know anything.”

Maps can be fun and informative but sometimes they can have a surprisingly touching effect on people.

“Nancy Chandler’s Map”, Chutachuk Markets, Bangkok, Thailand

There was a period of time when I had numerous trips to Bangkok. I’d visit for a few weeks at a time and would always try to squeeze in a visit to the famous Chutachuk Markets. Promoted as the world’s largest weekend market, it has everything from fresh produce and homewares to antiques and live animals. I loved exploring the stalls and getting lost among the countless rows. But sometimes I just wanted to get back to particular spot – like that cafe with amazing ice coffee. My saviour was Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok which included an incredibly detailed and accurate layout of the markets.

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It was not only wonderfully designed with bright colours and illustrations but also a delightful user experience with gifted insight into the locations themselves. It’s tone of voice and loving attention to detail made you feel like you were truly getting a local’s insight. And there were no ads – every detail had been personally selected by Nancy Chandler. I felt like I was borrowing a friend’s personal map.

For the markets, there were essential locations (public transport, ATMs, toilets), custom routes (follow the orange path for the vegetarian market), cultural advice (it gets hot so drink lots of water, bargain politely) as well as fun ones (a secret escape route!). I even started scribbling my own notes on the map, a layer that documented my personal connection and context with that place.

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Nancy was an artist and mapmaker originally from California who lived in Thailand for 18 years. Her unique background turned pure data (locations, facts, points of interest) into a unique experience for many travellers like me. While writing this article I discovered that she passed away in 2015 and felt sad about someone I had never met and only encountered through a map. It seemed strange but I was not alone after reading comments left on her website.

While I never met you personally, I’ve enjoyed your maps, coloring books, greeting cards, and other colorful items for years. You’re a legend in Thailand, one that will be remembered and your work enjoyed for many years to come.”

“We’re very sad to hear of Nancy’s death. We didn’t personally know Nancy but on just learning of her death now I have tears in my eyes. We felt her presence there with us in Thailand as we used her maps over the years. What a wonderful contribution she’s made to many people by her great work. We’ve given Nancy’s wonderful maps to many people as gifts over the years and usually pass them onto other tourists in Thailand as we finish each trip.”

“Thank you to the whole Nancy Chandler Maps family for being a burst of color in my life at a major fork in the road a few years ago. When it comes to choosing paths, I’ll always follow Nancy’s.”

These are more than maps. They are a unique set of journeys, feelings and memories attached to specific locations. In this context a map has become a vehicle for communication, messages passed on from one person to another, as a guide to experiencing the world around them and seeing more than meets the eye. 

And the essence of that experience shouldn’t change even when maps are consumed in different formats from paper to digital or beyond.

Augmented reality and location-based content

Augmented reality places a layer of digital content over the physical environment. In most cases, it doesn’t matter where you are, the experience is always the same. For example, using Snapchat’s filters to change the way you look. 

But there’s a unique opportunity in adapting augmented reality experiences based on the user’s current location. Pokémon Go is one of the few apps currently available that adapts augmented reality content based on the player’s location. But there’s much more exciting applications in this space.

A single location often serves many different functions depending on who you are. A museum is not just for history fans but also a place of research, a cafe for morning tea, a tourist meeting point, a fun kids’ activity during the holidays and a place to shelter while it rains.

Augmented reality is digital content. It’s content that we can map over physical spaces to create layers of meaning, sharing information to enhance the way a person interacts with a specific location. It’s a big idea and something that the team at Voyant AR are passionate about with a long term vision. We’re currently working on a location-based app which will be launched to beta very soon.

The world is more than dots and roads and rivers, and augmented reality is much, much more than pocket monsters, face filters and animojis.

It’s about layers of meaning and how you choose to see the world around you.

It’s about augmenting your own reality.