Words by Heba Malaeb and Afshin Mehin, Illustrations by Giovanna Giuliano
One of my guilty pleasures is watching videos of people walking with their eyes glued to their phone screens, when suddenly they fall down a staircase, bump into a lamppost, trip into a fountain, or collide with a fellow pedestrian. It’s hilarious, and if the countless video compilations of texting-and-walking-fails are an indication, it’s more common than you think. To most of us, it seems like technology is pretty great at disconnecting us from our physical surroundings; so it might be counter-intuitive to think that tech could actually help heighten our experience of the outdoors, and create stronger connections between people and their environment.
As a studio that has one foot in beautiful British Columbia and the other in Silicon Valley, we spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between the outdoors and technology. From GPS to Pokémon GO, all kinds of digital technologies have become a commonplace part of the outdoor experience. Through the use of tech, people are interacting with nature and the outdoors in increasingly varied ways. As designers, we’re always seeking to better understand these interactions, and the needs and motivations of the people having them.
The classic user of technology in the outdoors has always been the technominimalist, who seeks the outdoors as a way to escape modern life and get in touch with their pre-Twitter brains. They do this by scaling back their technology to the bare essentials — ironically, if you’re hoping to “unplug”, there are apps for that. Cairn is one app that allows you to download maps in advance for easy offline access, and offers real-time location tracking as well as information on where to find cell service. The app also automatically alerts your “safety circle” if you’re overdue for a check-in, sharing with them pertinent details about your route.
If a tree falls…
The most recent and widespread example of digital technology intermixing with the outdoors is happening on Instagram. For many, a great hike into the woods or a walk by the ocean would not be complete without posting it to Instagram. As a result, parks have seen a significant rise in number of visitors, as well as increasingly diverse crowds. People are also becoming better observers of nature, albeit through the lens of their camera phones. But this hasn’t been without consequence, whether it’s death by selfie or natural landscapes suffering from too much traffic because of geotagging. Yet people continue to document and share their time outside with their followers — and who of us hasn’t vicariously enjoyed an Instagram-story hike on a lazy Sunday morning in bed?
But for the IRL-adventure-inclined, technology can help keep thrill-seeking safe — enabling extreme fun without extreme danger. Experienced climbers, hikers, and explorers can rely on advanced outdoor tech like avalanche beacons and GPS devices that provide real-time tracking and SOS features, which can be life-saving in emergency situations. GPS gadgets can even be repurposed for lower-intensity outdoor applications; for example, LynQ’s People Compass is a friend-tracker that is as useful at a music festival as it is on a mountain.
Training by numbers
For the performance-driven who go outdoors to train and push their physical limits, tech acts as a way to get deeper in touch with their bodies, by providing insight into their heart rate, speed, distance tracked, etc. When we worked on the Recon Jet smart glasses UX, we wanted to create an experience that allowed competitive cyclists and runners to easily glance at their body data while training. Similarly, sports watches like those from Polar and Suunto offer specialized features to fit specific user needs — whether that’s a barometric altimeter or an underwater heart rate monitor. This kind of outdoor tech gives users access to detailed data logs of their own performance, lending an extra level of rigor to their training.
Others venturing outdoors might want increased insight into nature itself — using technology almost like a digital magnifying glass. A quick look in the App Store shows tens of plant-identification apps (one popular one is the Seek app) you could download to have an on-the-go learning tool. For these users with calm and inquisitive minds, our studio designed Tzoa, an environment tracker that measures air quality and particulate matter. Through demystifying something as intangible as air, Tzoa allows users to engage with their surroundings more deeply, and gain new understandings of their environment. And sometimes tech even encourages people to go outside in the first place; for example, scavenger-hunt-style geocaching games use GPS technology to lead players to certain locations where items are hidden. According to personal testimony and subsequent studies, the AR game Pokémon GO had an unintended positive effect on players’ mental health, by incentivizing outdoor exploration, necessitating social interaction, and giving players an increased sense of purpose.
For millennia the interaction between humans and nature has driven scientific advancement, philosophical thought, and just plain enjoyment. As with all new tools, it’s important to find ways to adapt technology to serve different types of needs, contexts, and situations. And as a future-facing design studio that prioritizes user experience, we view each new project as an opportunity to connect people to the outdoors in new ways — and an opportunity to get out into the great outdoors ourselves!