Roger McKinlay on Navigation

The personal musings of the Immediate Past President of the Royal Institute of Navigation


August 2016

Of Uber and self-stocking fridges.


Looking through the programme for the Royal Institute of Navigation’s INC16 conference there is a hint of “Life, the Universe and Everything”.  The topics are as diverse as ever.  Speakers will address navigation in space, automotive security, and the neuroscience behind 3D thinking.  Some of the papers are intriguingly topical: “sensing and cognition in mixed reality systems”.  You and I know it as Pokemon Go!

So is this the RIN deciding that if you look hard enough you can see navigation in everything?

Well yes – but only because it’s true.  We have grown used to finding things and people on the internet.  That is “finding” in the sense of “identifying” but not really touching.  It’s why the virtual world is –  well – “virtual” I suppose.  In this virtual world it is possible to steal someone’s identity without having to kidnap them, give them a concrete overcoat and drop them off Southend Pier.

The problem is this.  If these two worlds were perfectly tied together the benefits would be lost.  A virtual world perfectly locked to reality is no more useful than the real world.  It’s like printing off an e-mail, sticking a stamp on it and posting it.

So the secret lies in keeping the two worlds apart and only letting them touch where we want them to.  And it’s the touch-points that are of interest. Identity is one touch-point; so too is location.  The virtual world becomes a really useful world when things can hop out of it and land exactly where we want them to in the physical world.

We don’t want to know where someone is in order to send them an email but we want it to reach the right person.  On the other hand, we do want the dot on the screen to turn into a real Uber car but we don’t care what make the car is.  The fidelity of information at these touch-points is key.  I don’t want a bank transfer to be made to someone a bit like me; there’s no point in an Uber car turning up in roughly the right place.

Maybe those who coined the phrase Internet of Things missed the point.  Cyberspace is already full of things – real and virtual.  It’s the locations that matter.  Or put another way, things with real locations are much more interesting than thingy things.  Uber has changed the world in just a few years whereas the self-stocking fridge….

The IoT is dead?  Maybe not.  But long live the IoL – the Internet of Locations.

So come and learn how to tell your Ubers from your self-stocking fridges.  INC16.  8 to 10 November 2016.  University of Strathclyde.  Only a short fridge-ride from the Glasgow Airport.



Why cricket isn’t an Olympic sport.


Do any Olympic sports use navigation skills?  Divers and gymnasts show amazing spatial awareness but it’s not quite navigation.  The more you think about it the more it is apparent that navigation skills hardly feature at all.  Most competitors have spent the past four years training in an identical environment.  The only difference is the presence of other competitors.

Hours of repetition just doesn’t sound right for navigation skills.  Navigators, after all, prove their worth by boldly going where no man has gone before.

I have a theory that long ago orienteering used to be an Olympic sport.  The problem was, where did one stand as a spectator?   Where is the best place to see people making stupid mistakes and getting lost?  Impossible to know.  Second best was gathering at the last 100m straight.  It was not as much fun but at least you were guaranteed some action.  Over time it became clear that it was even more exciting to hold back the leaders to let the navigationally challenged catch up and then let everyone start the last 100m together.  Now the navigation bit is left to the competitors to carry out in their own time.  It’s called finding the stadium.

Earlier in the Rio games officials had to use bolt cutters to get in to a stadium having lost the keys.  This would make a great spectator sport but you would have to be given prior notice in order to get a good seat.  Sport only works in an unreal world of constraints and rules.

What makes the Olympics fun to watch is that all the action takes place in a perfectly prepared subset of real life where the objectives are 100% clear and opportunities for “doh – now why did I do that” silly blunders have been minimized.  Hence we do not see people achieving world-record times over 1000m but being disqualified for having accidentally run the wrong way.  We don’t see people turning up in the diving pool wearing fencing gear.  We don’t see Andy Murray arriving for the tennis final having left his kit at home along with his pack lunch.

No, sport is escapism and total cock-ups do tend to ruin the enjoyment.

Now why isn’t cricket an Olympic sport?  I rest my case.

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