Monday, 29 September 2014

Google walks

Start of the journey - BBC Wiltshire reception
Yesterday I made my regular appearance on BBC Wiltshire, but I was without a car, so experienced the joys of a bus in, and decided to walk back, a distance of just over four miles. What made it different, and really rather fun, was I did it with a walking sat nav.

It's not the first time I've used GPS on a phone for guidance while walking - in fact I've done it when finding my way across cities on foot for years - but what I've always done before is kept my phone in my hands, glancing at the map to see where I should go. This time, I plugged in a pair of earbuds, stuck the phone in my pocket and let the software do the talking. And it worked brilliantly.

Ms Google starts me off
One essential before getting started on this was to use Google Maps. More often than not I use Apple's mapping app - after its initial teething problems it works fine for most uses, including my strolls around cities. But for the kind of journey I was about to do it has a fatal flaw. It doesn't know about footpaths (certainly not footpaths in Swindon). Google does - and it makes a real difference to the walk.

So off I set with the slightly whiny, but assertive American woman telling me what to do in my ears. It was strangely intimate. When a car sat nav tells you what to do, it is clearly coming from that piece of kit on the dashboard, but when a voice in your ears tells you to turn left onto Regent Street, there really is quite a strong urge to respond and make it a conversation.

As always when I take these mid-range walks across Swindon it's a delight that's rather similar to the experience of travelling on a narrowboat on one of the UK's canals. There's that same mix of passing close by everything from industrial architecture to open fields at a pace where you can really look around and observe things, seeing the world from an angle you don't usually get to experience.

Ms Google did the job perfectly, though I did find it a little unnerving, only following voice commands. Three times I gave in and got the phone out to check the map (especially when she appeared to be directing me to cross the road and walk up a set of steps, as indeed she was), but each time what I thought she meant was correct. She even got a little cheeky.

Occasionally she would make apparently reassuring comments that were clearly intended to wind me up, as they would only be of use to a scout. I would be powering up a steep sloping bend and she would suddenly say 'Head north west.' Now, bearing in mind the phone was in my pocket, unless I had a compass in hand, or had one of those pairs of shoes (Wayfinders) with a compass in the heel I always wanted as a kid, but wasn't allowed because my mum (rightly) said the compass would be rubbish, this information was totally without value. Still, it broke the awkward silences.

All in all, a real success. I think Ms Google will be my companion on many more trips to come...

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