Making My Way Downtown

Making My Way Downtown

By Michaela Chua

Have you ever ridden a car with GPS navigation? I for one was undeniably amazed with the gadget the first time I saw it function. I was amazed with its ability to provide direction and even traffic conditions for more advanced versions. The GPS capacity is even extended to provide landmarks such as gas stations, restaurants, and other prominent structures. This device, I thought, would allow me to go far away provinces without having to tediously study road maps before a trip! This would definitely make life a lot easier!

There are, however, some inconsistencies when using a GPS navigator. For one, the satellite database, which is utilized by the navigator, is not updated as soon as changes in the road and landmark systems are made. It is not unusual that new roads are opened, new prominent landmarks are made, and changes in the road system happen. At the same time, landmarks that were once there are sometimes replaced or even demolished altogether. These updates are not taken into account by GPS navigators at the instant that these changes are made. During these instances, the person behind the wheels should learn to navigate himself via stored memory.

It is a known fact that our environment gives us a wealth of information which help us navigate through the places we go to. There are so many factors to take into account when studying how humans find their way in different environment that it challenges researchers as to which salient features actually help individuals in their navigation. This said, studies cannot holistically take all factors into account in order to determine how humans find their way to different locations. Because of this, a lot of research has focused on isolating certain features of the environment while taking into account of how these features help in navigation.

One such study was done by Steck and Mallot (2000) who investigated on visual navigation by constructing global and local landmarks as tools to navigate a virtual environment they called “Hexatown”. As a brief overview, local landmarks are notable sights that are visible only if a person is relatively near the said object. Examples of local landmarks include a phone box and houses. In the experiment, local landmarks were only visible at one junction. On the other hand, global landmarks are similar to compass information. These landmarks are visible from a distance and do not change even when the observer moves. Examples of these are a hilltop, a television tower, and the city skyline.

Thirty two (32) individuals aged 15 to 31, 18 of which were male and 14 of which were female, participated in the study. Each was asked to go through two training phases and a test phase. For the first training phase, the participants were tasked to familiarize themselves in navigating to and from the office and vice versa until they perfected the route. On the second training phase, on the other hand, the participants were tasked to navigate their way from different starting points until they found the said location which is either the office or the house. During the test phase, two experiments concerning landmark changes were conducted. In the first experiment, landmarks that were placed in one area of the city were transposed to other locations. In the second experiment, on the other hand, only one type of landmark remained. That is, either local landmarks or global landmarks were used.

Results of the experiment show that local and global landmarks are used in navigation. Although some individuals used only either local or global landmarks, some used both. This indicates that different individuals make use of different strategies in navigation. For the second experiment, Steck and Mallot (2000) found out that even though one type of landmark was shown, participants were still able to find their way to their destinations. This goes to show that even though some participants made use of a certain landmark type more often, the other landmark type was still stored in memory, which enable navigation thorough the virtual city. Apart from these findings, it should be noted that landmark salience is also an important factor in an individual’s selection of landmark type. To illustrate this point, although it is known that global landmarks are more salient from afar (e.g. radio tower), it will less likely be used if an area is surrounded by trees which cover the radio tower. Likewise, local landmarks which are less relevant to the individual will less likely be used as compared to a more relevant landmark type.

Therefore, we can say that even though we are exposed to the same environment at a certain instance, our brains still function differently in the sense that we use different strategies to find our way. Different parts of the brain such as the parahippocampal place area (PPA) and parts of the parietal cortex are at work. However, it still depends on one’s experience and memory that influences us to choose which information will be used to find our way.


Steck, S. D., & Mallot, H. A. (2000). The Role of Global and Local Landmarks in Virtual Environment Navigation. Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments, 9(1), 69-83. doi:10.1162/105474600566628


~ by myfivesenseworth on September 15, 2011.

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