Virulent Word of Mouse

June 29, 2010

A Modest Moment for Mobile Maps in Midtown Manhattan

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Computer and Internet Humor,Maps — Shane Greenstein @ 10:25 am

Let me start by getting one thing out of the way. I am not just another doofus guy who has trouble asking for directions. If anything, I ask too much.

Nonetheless, I do have a tendency to get lost. Nothing unusual made me lose my way on a beautiful evening in early June in Midtown Manhattan. I was late for dinner because I could not find the restaurant.

The plot of this story is simple. I was lost, but the map program in my iPhone helped me find the restaurant. It is just a little vignette, a modest and self-deprecating story that illustrates the wondrous capability of mobile maps.

The point is also simple. There is nothing particularly special about the use of the technology. Using mobile maps has become routine, almost mundane.

If you stop and think about it, however, this mundane and routine event represents a big change, especially in comparison to a decade ago. It builds on a remarkable combination of  technologies. These all must work together rather seamlessly to make that routine moment possible. That is the deeper point behind this post.

Two warnings before starting the story. First, this story is a shaggy dog. I will try to deliver it with a sense of the absurd and a touch of dry humor, but if you do not have five minutes to read a lot of trivial detail, then do not read this post.

Second, this story ends up sounding like a walking commercial for Google Maps. Honest, that was not my intent. All of it actually happened.

Lost in Manhattan

First I must explain how I got lost in Midtown Manhattan.

Look, it takes real talent to get lost in Midtown Manhattan, which, unlike most great cities, does not resemble a garden maze. In one direction the streets go by numbers, such as 43, 47 and 51, and so on in order. In the other direction there are some big avenues, like Madison, Lexington, and Park. Blocks are rectangles, arranged in a grid.

But if there is a way to get lost I will find it. To be honest, I expect to get lost. I do not even fight it anymore. When it happens I just shrug and move on.

You see, I am a professor, and society has given me and my colleagues permission to get lost in our thoughts from time to time. At the end of the work day it is not unusual to find all of us aimlessly wandering around the parking lot near our office, each of us mumbling something about wishing we had paid attention to where the car had been parked that morning.

Here is what I am trying to say. I am not proud of the way I got lost in Manhattan, but once I realized it happened, it did not surprise me. Such events happen with unalarming frequency.

Truth be told, the grid lulled me into complacency.  The host for the dinner said we were having dinner on 53rd street between Park and Lexington, near Lexington. Our hotel was on 44th street near Park.  And I thought, “How could I possibly get lost?”

Too confident for my own good, I went back to my room, and called home. Then I got distracted. I can blame AT&T for that.

In this case I was distracted by how well my iPhone worked from the hotel room. Like most iPhone users, I have come to expect poor reception almost everywhere, so I was delighted by the phone’s unexpectedly good performance at that moment. I checked in with the kids, and because I was not sure the phone would work this well again on the trip, I talked a little longer than I should have. Time passed. Then I suddenly realized that I had to go. Otherwise I would be late for dinner.

After hanging up, I tucked the phone in my pocket, and went downstairs. Then I asked a doorman to point me towards 53rd and Lexington (yes, I did ask for directions). Off I went in a hurry.

In retrospect I am not sure how I missed the name of the place on the overhang, but apparently I walked right past it. Being in a hurry must have distracted me. After reaching Lexington I knew something was wrong, but I kept walking on 53rd in the hope I misheard the host.

Needless to say, I did not find the restaurant. I was starting to feel a bit like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland — late for a very important date.

After going two more blocks I stopped to talk to another doorman (Yes, once again, I asked for directions). He gets the blame for the next phase of this journey. The doorman responded with one of those confident New York voices. “Never heard of a place with that name on 53rd, but I have heard of one on 51st. Near Lexington.” That answer made me wonder again if I had heard my host correctly. (In retrospect, it was foolish to trust this doorman, but if you got lost as often as I do, you would doubt your own hearing too.)

Anyway, to make a long story short, I walked to 51st and Lexington.  Not surprisingly, no restaurant was there. (After all, it was actually located on 53rd.)

More to the point, at that moment I was losing my usual sense of equanimity and resignation in the face of the absurd. I was confused and a wee-bit agitated, and I did not know what was true.

Seeing no other alternative, I turned the corner and went back to Park Avenue, looking for another doorman. Eventually I found an office building with a bored security guard sitting at his station on the ground floor.

I asked him if he had ever heard of the place. (Yes, that was a third time I asked for directions.) That query is what created the moment for mobile maps.

Look it up

The guard spoke with a thick Jamaican accent, and I wondered if he actually fully understood me. He said, “How do you spell that?” He fumbled with some things under his desk, as if he were looking for a phone directory. He did not find anything.

Once he stopped fumbling, he looked up at me. That is when I said “I am not sure. It is called Bra-s-ser-rie.” I pronounced each syllable. “I dunno’ how it is spelled. Maybe B-R-A-S…” As I made a guess at the spelling, I wondered again if he really understood me.

It looked hopeless, but he was sincere, so I stuck around out of a sense of politeness. Then he fumbled through his desk and pulled out an iPhone. He flashed it at me with one of those proud and knowing smiles that every iPhone user has, and mumbled something about finding the restaurant.

I watched him push a few buttons. After about fifteen seconds I deduced that he did not really understand how to use the apps on the phone. Once again, this was hopeless.

Then it dawned on me that I had an iPhone in my pocket. Yes, it also dawned on me at the same time that I should have thought of this sooner, but, like I said earlier, I am resigned to moments like this. It felt just like one of those moments in the parking lot when I suddenly remember where I had parked my car.

As the doorman fumbled with his iPhone, I pulled mine out of my pocket. I cannot recall if I gave a proud and knowing look to the security guard.

I put some letters into Google maps. I (mis)spelled “B-R-A-S-E-R-R-I-E, and New York.” Google responded with “Did you mean Brasserie?” The rest was predictable.

A little blue dot popped up on the map of Manhattan. I knew that indicated where I was. I had amused my children many times showing them the blue dot on Google Maps as we moved in the car. My thirteen year old son, in particular, enjoys playing with Google Maps when he gets driven somewhere.

Anyway, seven virtual pins also popped up, and all of them had some relationship with Brasserie. I thought “Must be a franchise.” One of the virtual pins was on 53rd, between Park and Lexington, close to Lexington.  That seemed like a pretty good candidate for my destination.

I told the doorman I had found it, thanked him, and left. I walked there. The blue dot also moved. Eventually the blue dot reached the targeted virtual pin.

When I got there I knew it was the right place. It said “Brasserie” on the overhang.

More to the point, I did not recall seeing this place earlier. I wondered how I had missed it.

By the way, the second doorman had not been totally wrong. There was also a virtual pin for a Brasserie on 51st, but not near Lexington. This place was a few blocks over, near 5th Avenue.

Combining technologies

The host had planned for extended cocktails first, so I was late for drinks, not dinner. It turned out to be a nice dinner.

If you think about it, that moment for mobile maps illustrated a remarkable combination of technologies.

I can see five different technologies. Let’s count them. These were:

  • GPS, which produced the blue dot with real-time accuracy on the maps. Just a decade ago this was an exotic capability controlled by the defense department. Now it is routine.
  • Electronic versions of the maps. Just a decade ago electronic maps on the Internet were new. Mobile maps consisted of Rand-McNally books or big folded special maps. Now, electronic maps are not all that remarkable for place less well known than  Manhattan.
  • The virtual pins, which made the information very easy to understand. Again, routine and mundane.
  • The search function, which automatically fixed my misspelling. Once again, this has become routine, but a decade ago it was unknown in any mass market application. Now, this function works wonders. It had experienced so many misspellings of Brasserie that it had learned to respond to my misspelling with “Did you mean…?”
  • Perhaps the most interesting technology was the mobility itself. There was a split second reaction to user input. That could happen because many antennae had been strung across Park Avenue. These relayed data over the spectrum back to the search engine, and which relayed its answer back to the device.

Altogether the combination of technologies solved my problem in a lickety-split moment.

The story also illustrates something rather general about the way complements combine to result in amazing services. What I mean is this: a map by itself would not have solved my problem, nor would a GPS device have done so, nor would a telephone have helped without a directory. None of the inputs alone could come close to performing a task that would have solved my problem. Only the combination generated a service that solved my problem.

Of course, there is a bigger lesson in all this. Next time before I leave the hotel I am not asking any doorman for directions. I will just put the destination in Google Maps and follow the blue dot.

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