Friday, March 5, 2010

GPS, Vision, Confusion and Distress

Lost (TV series)Image via Wikipedia

My Magellan 4700 GPS has been a god send.  I can be so incredibly disoriented while driving that I don't know where I really am at a given point in time.  Especially between exits on a freeway.  You know, without peripheral vision, the road is more like a tunnel that I travel down, so I don't have any of the cues or memories so I can get lost going down roads that I've frequently traveled.

The GPS has made a huge difference in terms of planning.  I punch in my errands (even the day to day ones around my little town!) and I let the GPS figure out the optimum route.  You can't believe how much more efficient I am in my daily life!  I just do what the GPS tells me to do.   Sometimes I reprioritize my errands to make sure the really important one gets done first.

Between using an automatic calendar and the voice commands of the GPS, I am getting controlled by machines and I am delegating a certain amount of free will to automatons!  This gives rise to some rather amusing observations about the relationship between man and machine... you know, kind of a 2001 Space Odyssey imagery arises.... I feel an odd passivity, at times... the machine is going to tell me what to do next.... and a loss of what psychologists and sociologists call agency, the capacity of a person to act in this world under his/her own free will.  Step by step, I obey my machines.  But, you know, my free will is doing too well by itself and does need assistance.   If you don't have good input from the senses and your poor executive lobes (portions of the brain that deal with complex thought) are compensating for the garbled senses and have their own issues, thank you very much, your free will is left roaming in circles in a thicket and loses its capacity to act upon its volition or thoughts.  On a bad day,  my poor free will is also overcome by the stress and anxiety brought on by disorientation and the consequences of not being able to conduct one's life in an organized fashion.

I suppose, in earlier pre-Information age eras, people like me might have been tempted to form relationships with highly controlling people in order to bring some stability to their own lives.  You can read biographies of great men who apparently floundered until they met the little woman who ran the details of their every day life.   These relationships may have been healthy or unhealthy as the case may be.   So maybe, in some sense, a relationship with a machine may be healthier?  What an odd conclusion to come to.

On another note,  pondering the automatic route planning feature of GPS and its effect on decison making and planning has brought me to another insight on deficits in executive function.   In dealing with getting to and from places,  I can be a bit rule-bound -- ie I can set up rules that will act in only a particular unique situation.  Many times, I can understand what route it takes for me to get somewhere and how long that journey will take but only after I practice it for a period of time.  Unfortunately, that practice doesn't translate itself into figuring out the next trip. So maybe, I need what is called a metacognitive strategy -- a way to plan a plan.

It turns out that a lot of work has already been done in mathematics and computer science in terms of algorithms to assist in automated planning.  If you start looking around you will see there's been a lot of work in topology, geometry and other branches of mathematics to deal with this problem of a metacognitive strategy, or ways to plan a plan.  Typical areas of investigation have included: auto-routing for transportation and logistics systems, computer network management, and circuit board assembly.   Now, I may not need to keep track of 10's of thousands of items like these systems do, but I will be able to right-size some of this math to suit my needs.

I know this is a bit thick... but bear with me... I am an over-educated Ivy League type married to a mathematician!  Many years ago, I had worked on designing part of  the GPS system and automated decision-making software, my sister worked on designing Smart-Route, an automatic traffic routing system, and my husband worked on very early implementations of search functions... so it is very funny that all this cognitive decision making is "in-house" so to speak.  Because of my visual limitations and cognitive deficits, I just can't process the world simply like the rest of the human race... believe me, I wish I could!   So I will learn everything that there is to know about the algorithms of planning and I will create a metamap that can fit day-to-day life.  I think if I ponder my little algorithms, I can create some visual representation that I can use in my every day to day life.  I do have some visual thinking abilities and the answer will come to me visually that I can turn into some sort of aide-memoire or device that makes sense out of what to do when I get out of bed in the morning and want to plan my day.  Many of the current devices or software embedded in smart phones for day planning seem to embody creating rule sets for a particular situation... I am pondering something more general that I can use for the day to day.

The types of problems that I talk about when I am so confused that I need the mechanical aide of a GPS are problems more generally of  what they call visual spatial orientation,  the difficulty of seeing the relationship of objects in space to the body.   

More generally, these difficulties may include the following:
  •   Becomes lost/confused 
  •   Clumsy - difficulty in P.E., sports, art, and "shop" classes
  •   Difficulty copying from the board accurately and with speed
  •   Difficulty following directions that use left/right orientation
  •   Becoming disoriented
  •  Difficulty making a transition from one activity to another 
and here are a few ideas, not using a GPS for dealing with a lack of Visual Spatial Orientation:

  • Remember to ask questions regarding any directions, explanations, instructions you does not understand
  • Have a friend model finding locations
  • Take a personal tour of various locations in a new environment
  • Limit the number of locations required to find on his/her own in a new environment
  • Develop clear, concise written directions, symbols or a map to use in order to find locations
  • Run errands to specific locations for practice in finding locations in new environments
  • Ask for directions when you have difficulty finding locations 
  • Identify regular routes to use to find locations
  • Carry a map of locations -- Mapquest or Google Maps are great assistances, maps of college campuses, parks
  • Move from one location to another with a group until you develop the ability to find the locations independently
  • Identify landmarks which help him/her find necessary locations 
 If you decide to go the tech gadget route and want to buy a GPS, consider the following features:
  •  Voice Activation -- It's very helpful in not taking your eyes off the road to be able to tell the GPS what you want.
  •   BlueTooth:  the ability to sync your phone to your GPS.  Very helpful in areas demanding a handsfree headset.
  •  4.3-inch wide screens are easier to read and use.
  • Text-to-SpeechBetter systems tell you to turn onto a street, highway, or route number by its name rather than the more general "right turn ahead" 
  •  Predictive data entry and dynamic search -- You don't have much time to fiddle with a GPS in traffic so having something guess what you want to type is a real assist.
  • Real-time traffic reports  -- This often involves a subscription service.  Some newer GPS have access to historical traffic data and can route around known congestion patterns such as rush-hour traffic.
  • Detour feature.  It's very helpful to have something else calculate an alternative route on the fly. If you have problems with visual spatial orientation, it is generally hard enough on you to get to where you are going; never mind very quickly figuring out a new route because of traffic conditions or road construction.
  • Routing option.  The ability to choose another route based on fastest time or shortest distance or other features.  You can also program in a multi-stop trip and let the GPS figure out the best order for you to run your errands.
The the five most popular GPS brands, listed in order of market share: GarminMagellanMio, Nextar  and  TomTom.

Another thing to consider are the GPS phones.  GPS has been added to cell phones.  I will be reviewing them in another post.