Am I a GPS-enabled phone artist or a touch mad?

A geometric, geographic experiment shows the physical and virtual world are converging thanks to mobile tech. Christo, here I come.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

OLD WINDSOR, U.K.--I like computers. I like maps. I like drawing. And in one gestalt moment at 10:36 p.m. last Thursday, these affinities all came together.

As I entered a neighborhood park for a nighttime stroll after the kid was in bed, firing up a GPS application on my phone to keep track of my exercise, it occurred to me: Why not use the phone to create and record a path I could show as a design on a map?

So I did. I chose a basic pattern, spiraling in from the periphery to the center. The GPS-enabled phone (a Google Ion developer phone) helped me chart my course through the dark. Here's the result:

It's not going to compete with the Nazca Lines, but with a location-aware phone and Google Maps, you can create geographic designs with the world as your canvas.
It's not going to compete with the Nazca Lines, but with a location-aware phone and Google Maps, you can create geographic designs with the world as your canvas. Stephen Shankland/CNET

When I showed this to friends and family, I took some ribbing for being pretty geeked out and even perhaps well on my way to being somewhat deranged.

But my little experiment crystallized some of my thinking about the converging virtual and physical worlds. Both creating the track then viewing it later weaved these largely separate domains together.

GPS track art couldn't exist as a form of expression without technology that's just arriving today.

A first necessity is one of my favorite Android applications, Google's My Tracks, which records your location, shows the track on a map, and calculates statistics such as distance traveled or elevation gained. My Tracks will drain your phone battery all too quickly, but I like to use it for geotagging my photos, logging bike rides, or creating Google Earth fly-throughs.

With My Tracks, I could see the pattern of where I'd been and where I should go on the phone's screen. With the screen, I could navigate in the dark--it was a pretty crude version of augmented reality.

The second necessity was Google Maps, which gave me a place to overlay the track on a view of the actual park. My Tracks handles this much more conveniently than my dedicated GPS unit.

I make no claims to be the next Picasso, but I think that in more capable hands, GPS track art has some potential as a form of artistic expression.

A lot of artists seem to thrive within the constraints of their medium--the lilting gait of iambic pentameter, the strength and frailty of marble, the textures and colors of oil paint. GPS drawing requires you to navigate the Earth's surface in a very particular way even if you're in an open field, but the result, at least for something beyond my rudimentary experiment, can bring some intellectual satisfaction.

And there's something gratifying about using the Earth as a canvas. You need look no further than the Nazca Lines in Peru, the neothic-age circle of Avebury in England, or the Uffington White Horse carved in a chalky hillside nearby. Or for something more contemporary, some of Christo's work.

I'm certainly not the first to have this idea. One earlier GPS artist is Antti Laitinen, who created a GPS-based self-portrait based on GPS-logged walks through eight different European locations.

There's a big difference between the virtual world and the real world, of course. Creating GPS track art still requires you to get out of the house, but looking at it just takes a computer with an Internet connection. It misses the visceral impact of seeing something on a grand scale.

I believe the two worlds are converging.

Google is building the 3D world of Google Earth into the much more mainstream Google Maps, capturing 3D data along with its Street View imagery, and even adding interior views to its database. Its ambition appears to be building a continuously updated electronic view of the real world, searchable, navigable, and no doubt overlaid with ads it deems appropriate. Google Buzz will show comments from people nearby you on a map.

At the same time, there's the concept of augmented reality--think of a heads-up display like fighter pilots see, but projected onto some eyeglasses. The computer can add new information to whatever you're seeing--navigation help, nametags for people at a cocktail party, hyperlinks to restaurant reviews.

When I was recording my GPS track, it felt like a crude version of augmented reality without the fancy glasses. It was dark, so I couldn't use visual reference points very well for making my spiral, so I walked with my eyes glued to the phone screen. On it, my track showed as a bright red line on a satellite photo. The hardest part was the lag between its portrayal of my location and my actual one, a fact that made it hard to get around corners and get exercise.

Fans of Foursquare, Gowalla, Noticin.gs, and the like already have discovered the intersection of the online and real worlds, too. But it's going to take a lot of work to bring this idea out of the nerdosphere.

My wife is a case in point. When I showed her the map with my geometric exploration of the park, she clearly was a little appalled. Had her husband come unhinged, wandering in some monomaniacal fugue state?

Well, perhaps she'll get used to it. She didn't seem put off when our son ran around the Royal Windsor Maze, though granted that wasn't some Tron version.

Perhaps if I'd picked something a little more organic--David Hroncheck's valentine-shaped track, for example--my geometric, geographic foray would have seemed human.

But one way or another, we're all going to have to get used to the interpenetration of the physical and virtual worlds. Today, we're dipping our toes in the water with sat-nav devices in our cars and geotagged tweets. Tomorrow, it'll be full immersion.