The A to Z of travel technology – The National


How technology is changing the way we travel in the 21st century

2011

Travel and technology article

Augmented reality

This technology essentially involves layering information over a particular screen-based view of the world. A wide variety of iPhone apps use this technique to supplement the view you can see through the lens of your phone’s camera with all manner of useful, semi-transparent objects, from directions to restaurant reviews. At the moment, the potential of this technology outweighs stunning examples. The instant translation of Word Lens is one of the most remarkable, though it is only available in English and Spanish.

Biometric passports

Biometrics uses physical traits and our behaviour to confirm we are who we say we are. Fingerprints, facial recognition and iris scans are being used to verify the identities of travellers in the passports issued by many countries. As many traits start to be used at once (“multimodal” techniques), biometrics will help people pass through borders more quickly. Yet it has not been entirely welcomed: passports have become more expensive as a result and concerns about the security and privacy of the data handled by governments abound.

Couchsurfing

Since 2004, the international network www.couchsurfing.org has helped match people with a spare couch or bed with people who want to stay somewhere for free. The website has almost three million members in 246 countries. If you prefer more privacy and want to know a bit more about what you are letting yourself in for, a slew of companies has started to offer a similar but paid service for short-term apartment rentals and sublets. One of the most popular, www.airbnb.com, has places to stay in 16,023 cities in 186 countries for much less than a hotel.

Data

When using services such as Facebook, Gmail or Dropbox, we are no longer storing data on our computers. Instead it resides - to use a rather nebulous slogan - “in the cloud”. The benefits for travellers are undeniable: you can check your email anywhere and you don’t have to lug heavy equipment around. But such an approach often means relinquishing certain rights over the data. Most of us have yet to appreciate what this means, but when, for example, we see our personal information appearing in adverts, the potential problems become clearer.

E-readers

Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad and Sony’s eReader put an end to decisions about which books to take on holiday. Yet it is doubtful they have led to many more books being read while travelling. They create a surfeit of tomes whose burden weighs more heavily than the 600-or-so grams of the slender device that houses them. But faced with a decision between Dostoevsky, Flaubert or JK Rowling, the choice can be so paralysing you end up playing Angry Birds instead.

Free

From travel guides (see Virtual guides) to accommodation (see couchsurfing), it has become common to expect something for nothing in travel. This is an amplified version of the benevolence that has been part of travel for centuries, from pilgrimage to hitchhiking. Yet this complimentary approach has another aspect. Many free services - from Google to Facebook - make money from a remarkable sleight of hand: they turn the consumer into the product being sold.

Google maps

Cartography has changed recently with the liberalisation of data from satellites in orbit above the Earth. The view from space is all-seeing, all-knowing. Google Maps puts this omniscient power at our fingertips for free. The result is a work of art that borders on a masterpiece. In just six years it has changed how we can view the world. Check out the websites www.robotflaneur.com or www.googlesightseeing.com for examples of how Google’s mapping services can be used for virtual sightseeing.

Hipmunk

Does anyone use a travel agent anymore, at least to book flights? After all, you can buy a ticket for most airlines directly through their websites. Flight search websites, such as www.skyscanner.com and www.travelsupermarket.com make this process much easier: they check your criteria against a range of websites and bring back the best options. Hipmunk (www.hipmunk.com) organises the results into a colourful chart that you can filter by price, duration and “agony”.

Images

“Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” sounds innocuous enough as a mantra for travel, but anyone who has seen tourists jostling to pose for a shot in front of a famous monument may start to think differently. Shot is such an apt term: people stand as if in front of a firing squad and, upon returning home, display the images like the trophies of a game hunter. In fact, the image is rapidly becoming the focus of travel - the click of the digital camera is changing the experience of travel completely.

Jet engines

The tedium foisted on air travel by its operators is partly to assuage the scariness of jet travel. Instead of contemplating the view from the window, we are encouraged to reach a state of numbness by watching films and playing games on glowing rectangles in the backs of chairs. When you start to think about the physical details of flight - hundreds of tonnes of metal rising into the air, powered by jet engines, flying 10,000m above the ground - it starts to regain some of its magic. Next time you fly, remember this: jet engines are one of the most remarkable travel technologies invented.

Kilowatts

With 12 different types of mains plugs in use around the world and a variety of leads needed to recharge cameras, phones and computers, you can quickly end up with a spaghetti of wires in your bag. New ways to feed the appetite for power are emerging. Solar chargers, such as the Solarroll (www.bruntonoutdoor.com), are starting to provide enough power in a convenient way, while hydrogen cartridges, such as the HydroStik (www.horizonfuelcell.com), are emerging as an efficient, less environmentally hazardous alternative to traditional batteries.

Location data

Most people had an inkling that their iPhones knew where they were at a particular time. The extent to which the device was tracking its user’s movements became clear in April with the discovery of a file called “consolidated.db”. Implemented with iOS4, it contains details about the iPhone’s movements (latitude, longitude and time stamp), which can be plotted on a map. Apple quickly provided a solution to turn the feature off, but if you have an iPhone and want to see where you’ve been, go to http://petewarden.github.com/iPhoneTracker (Mac only).

Mobile

Mobile phones are much more than portable telephones. Apple’s iPhone encourages developers to create useful applications to sell through the App Store, which currently has 14,973 apps in the travel section, providing everything from train times to city guides. Google’s Android mobile operating system, used by manufacturers such as HTC, Motorola and Samsung, is starting to challenge Apple’s dominance. In time, competition will lead to even more innovative tools for travellers.

Networked urbanism

Modern cities are interconnected urban networks that store data such as information about subway use in New York, statistics from traffic cameras on a busy Bangkok road or the automated Twitter account of London Bridge posting messages in the first person as it opens and closes (see @twrbrdg_itself for more details). Collecting and using the data produced by metropolises has started to blur the boundaries between the physical and the virtual.

Offline

Free Wi-Fi access in hotels still seems like a boon. But there’s a growing feeling that being continually connected to the internet might not be such a good thing. It is certainly distracting, as illustrated by the popularity of programs such as www.macfreedom.com, which lock your internet access for a certain amount of time to help you to concentrate on work. If this concept expands, travel will increasingly become an escape in a different way - it will be an escape from the online world.

Panopticon

The panopticon was a circular building devised by the 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham to allow prison officials to watch inmates without their knowing. The concept was made famous by the 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault when he used it as a metaphor for modern society. It has become relevant once again with the rise of websites such as Facebook, where users are on show and always being seen without being aware of the extent of that vision (see Offline).

QR codes

QR (Quick Response) codes are like bar codes that can be read by the camera in a mobile phone. They can be used on the packaging of products to inform someone about a promotion or in newspapers to direct a reader to a website. Popular in Japan since they were developed in 1994, QR codes are yet to fulfil their potential despite excellent examples of their use. Tesco in South Korea created virtual shops in subways to allow people to add items to their online cart for delivery.

Report

Nicholas Felton (www.felton.com) has been creating Personal Annual Reports since 2005. While the corporate reports are glossy tedium, his personal reports bristle with wit and humanity. It turns out that compiling personal data over a year helps us evaluate our experiences in a better way. Seeing all the locations we have visited, for example, gives us the bigger picture of a year’s travel. Felton is the co-founder of Daytum (www.daytum.com), a service to help you create your own reports.

Google’s search engine was good because it worked. But as the importance of being at the top of search results increased, companies began to use search engine optimisation (SEO). As a result, many search results have started to feel unsatisfactory. Travel queries about hotels and flights are particular prone to manipulation. Luckily, other ways of finding results are emerging. With technologies such as local search and social search, results based on our location and the preferences of our friends will become increasingly important when travelling.

Ticketless

Despite developments such as online check-in and baggage drop-off, flying remains irksome and bureaucratic. When so much of travel has become self-service, from booking tickets to collecting luggage, it seems anachronistic to queue up at a desk with a piece of paper to check in. Qantas “next generation” check-in is an attempt to streamline this process, and uses baggage tags with microchips and touchscreen poles at airports. It works well but it is not ticketless yet: you still have to print a ticket to board the plane.

Undiscovered

Is there anywhere left in the world that has not been visited or photographed or documented in some way? With new ways to seek out travel information (see Search) and a diminished sense of scale in the world (see Zoom), “undiscovered” places tend to be political, such as North Korea, or difficult to reach, such as Easter Island. Even these rarefied zones are well represented on Flickr, the image-sharing website. No doubt technology has made such places endangered, perhaps even pushing them to the brink of becoming extinct.

Virtual guides

With the emergence of online platforms on which to read and publish up-to-date travel data, books by publishers such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide have been rendered stale as soon as they hit the shelves. Many of these companies publish online guides, and are seeking different roles in our travels. But carrying a guide feels more like having a travel companion. It reveals the history of a place’s ups and downs much more clearly than online guides. It remains to be seen whether these qualities will save the guide from becoming solely virtual.

Wi-Fi

While travelling, Wi-Fi presents a complicated situation. Despite initial idealism about free Wi-Fi for all on a community-wide basis, many Wi-Fi services are now password-protected or cost money. Airport Wi-Fi ranges from free to extortionate (try sitting near a business-class lounge for a free, unsecured Wi-Fi network). Huawei MiFi is a device that provides a way to create a Wi-Fi hot spot using a 3G data connection. Some Android phones and iPhones have this feature, but you may have to pay extra with your mobile service provider.

X-rays

Security screening is becoming ever-tighter in response to terrorist attacks. Until a few years ago, X-ray machines were used to scan luggage, while passengers passed through a metal detector. In 2007 airports began to use full-body scanning machines, which use X-rays to see beneath a passenger’s clothing. Although the machines help to improve security, there have been concerns about the damage to health caused by X-rays as well as the intrusion of privacy, particularly after images from the scans were published online.

You

Technology has led to the democratisation of travel. So much of the travel process has become self-service, from flights (see Hipmunk) to check in (see Ticketless). It has also brought the opinions of every traveller to the fore. Newspapers publish readers’ tips and photographs. TripAdvisor and other websites publish reviews of flights, hotels and restaurants. We upload videos from our iPhone to Youtube. Ironically, as individual voices become more numerous, it is the opinion of the crowd (in metrics such as average rating) that holds the most sway.

Zoom

The yotta (10 to the power of 24) was introduced as the largest unit of measurement in 1991. It is used for things such as the diameter of the known universe. No doubt such mind-boggling dimensions have influenced our concepts of distance. Yet it is the effects of being able to easily manipulate scale (zoom in and zoom out on digital maps) and traverse the globe in a day or two (travelling by air) that have changed our physical understanding of space. These different types of zoom have, to adopt a cliché, made the world seem a smaller place.

Published on 6 August 2011 in The National.