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March 14th, 2016
What level of interaction do we expect from maps, apps and geospatial experiences?

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The evolution of mapping and geospatial information from 2D maps to interactive applications and finally to virtual reality (VR) experiences is one that is ongoing and yet each of these modes of delivery and interaction will be advancing in parallel for a very long time. It’s not an evolution where subsequent forms have replaced all prior forms. Instead, it’s an increased portability of geospatial information and repackaging for different insights and conveniences.

Given that a lot of talk about cartographic representation is about scale and accuracy, it seems fitting to discuss the different scales and interactions that happen with maps, apps and VR experiences. While each span multiple scales they convey information differently and each have a sweet spot for the types of information they can convey and the interactions that they facilitate.


While the 2D map has lost a lot of its utility for daily navigation and much of that map reading skill has atrophied, a map is a very useful graphic for illustrating change and presenting it in thematic ways. The map as an infographic has been around for a very long time, yet it is still coming into its own as a must-have means to illustrate what’s happening in the world.

Map products are increasingly being used to convey broad-scale trends and insights given the improved accessibility and ease of use of mapping software and the increasing availability of mappable data. Maps effectively visualize information to raise awareness and spur action. The 2D static map can do this well within traditional media where a story from global to local can be presented in a compelling and easily digestible form. Maps also thrive as means to convey insight and illustrate research findings.

The interactive map is an offshoot of the 2D map that falls short of an application experience yet is more configurable and customizable than the traditional paper form. The interactive map unlocks the means to click and explore the underlying data to gain a personalized map-based tour of information in context and much more data can be conveyed in an interactive and annotated format, such as a story map.


The app is about creating a human-centered experience that displays and conveys information around an individual’s location. The map as app has seen the greatest degree of innovation lately, with more details delivered based on location and current conditions.

Navigation that is delivered with options based on current drive times is the perfect illustration of the personalized map that’s tuned to our individual needs and what’s happening now. The idea of a map that provides the quickest route based on travel mode and that factors how traffic is currently moving would be something akin to science fiction ten years ago. Yet, not only is such insight available, it’s something that is provided as a free offering on the Google Maps app.

Mapping apps are great for conveying our local areas through the context of what we’re interested in. They have proven the ultimate platform for delivering local advertising for instance, delivering deals and reviews related to our search queries for retail, restaurants and service options. This localized and tailored experience has a tendency to lull us into dependence that can come crashing down when we’re outside of areas without good content or connectivity. The map app experience is a huge convenience that we take for granted now and it can only get better.


The area of virtual reality with 1:1 maps is something that’s in nascent stages at the moment, however, we have seen this future in such things as Google StreetView that allow us to explore an area in a somewhat immersive mode prior to being there in person. This ability to provide previews for travel or virtual walkthroughs of tasks before traveling or executing actions provides an improvement on outcomes that will foster broad adoption.

Training and travel have huge potential here on top of the obvious gaming and social networking applications. This is the year when VR headsets will reach the masses at relatively low costs. As a result of this widespread availability it will be a year of experimentation that may provide some surprises. Just as there are rules for VR entertainment experience mapping and navigating VR will have a rule set of its own with the dos and don’ts for a meaningful VR navigation experience.

The ongoing evolution of maps, mapping and geospatial visualization will likely hold some surprises for how we understand, interact, explore and envision the future of our world. Don’t lose sight of this continuum of maps, apps and experiences if you want to harness the collective knowledge of what cartographers, geographers and remote sensing specialists have learned.

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