Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Maps are all around us

July 4th, 2009 by Seb Chan

I was reading Michael Chabon’s piece on childhood last week and one section popped out of the screen –

It captured perfectly the mental maps of their worlds that children endlessly revise and refine. Childhood is a branch of cartography.

Walking my daughter to school we tiptoe “past the wizard’s house” at the top of my street – a rather rundown old building full of props and what, to small people, appears very much like magic equipment. A little further up the road is where the “scary man” sleeps rough. This got me thinking about the possibilities for children’s maps of their neighbourhoods overlaid on ‘official maps’.

So how might this work? Could this work as a game? Well, it also provides an excuse for a stream of consciousness post about a few of my favourite map-related projects.

Since I saw it at MW2009 I’ve been a huge fan of the New York Public Library’s Map Rectifier project. Here historical maps are being ‘rectified’ so that they can be searched, and navigated using contemporary online mapping tools. (The current rectifier uses Open Street Map). This is an incredibly thoughtful way of ‘digitising a collection’ – where the digital copy opens the object up to new uses. I’m looking forward to future projects that emerge from this work and peeling back the layers of historical sediment as maps are laid on top of each other by year.

New maps of the city are being created all the time and here’s a new Nintendo DS game called Treasure World (article) that utilises the environment around the player – the mutlitude of WiFi points around a coty to be precise – as a key element in the game. Players collect in-game content as they explore the city’s WiFi points around them. This is almost invisible ‘augmented reality’ gaming – and I’d wager that many players won’t comprehend that the city around them is the game itself (indeed, the point is that they don’t need to).

Similarly revealing of the digital sediment around us, Flickr’s mobile ‘near me‘ (open on your iPhone) brings to the mass market mobile web what the iPhone application Darkslide (formerly Exposure) had as an ‘extra feature’. With Near Me the mobile Flickr website now can make a call to your location and then return other people’s photos ‘near you’. This creates an uncanny experience of being able to – in place – view the world through the eyes of those who have been there previously. Or, ‘near my home’, it shows me the rather debauched parties that happen in some of my neighbours’ houses (perhaps that’s just my neighbourhood!).

Conversely I’ve been fascinated by a number of art projects that reveal the parts of the world still unmapped by photosharing websites – “the no-go zones of the technorati”.

There’s sonic maps emerging too – the BBC’s Save Our Sounds – and the University of Salford’s Sound Around You have both been in the news recently, and Audio Boo has been around since the beginning of the year too.

One of my friends and sound artist, Richard Fox, has just launched a new augmented reality game in Sydney based on the razor gangs of the early 20th century in Darlinghurst. Called Razorhurst, and adapted from a historical book, Razor, it uses GPS-enabled PDAs (running Windows Mobile and built with MScape) to recreate the period. It runs to the end of July (sponsored by dLux Media Arts) and you can collect your PDA for the game from the East Village Hotel – the significance of which is crucial to the story.

Mscape has been around for a little while to author these sorts of games, and the historical assets are starting to become a little more widely available. It is a pretty easy authoring environment even if it is the equivalent of the CD ROM age – only playable on some devices, closed system etc.

Someone – yes, you dear reader – should probably go and build a Mscape game out of the geotagged content in the Flickr Commons – I would if I had 100 hours.

Of course, there’s another reason why I’ve been really interested in maps but I’ll tell you about that in a week or two . . .

Tags: 1 Comment

  • Seb,
    When I was a child, I spent a lot of time walking the dog and exploring my (very circuitous) neighborhood. It was easy to get lost in a pleasurable way. Several times I tried to make maps, but they were always plagued by my childhood sense of perspective (this street curves ALL the way around) and I’d end up with streets that didn’t go together, together.

    Now I live in the woods off the map, and one of our favorite things to do is to try to map our meanderings on the blanket of trees on google earth in our vicinity. It strikes me that if I were a kid now, I’d love to try to trace my walks as overlays on google maps, to be able to magically match up my world with THE world. Maybe mashups should be on the 7-year-old curriculum.