Science Week: Top 3 Achievements in “Augmented Travel”

“Augmented reality” (where the virtual and physical meet) is becoming the new reality, it seems. A couple months ago, Yelp’s Easter-egg app Monocle was “discovered” — allowing one to shake an iPhone 3GS thrice, and see digital overlays of business listings/ratings through the iPhone camera. And options expanded last week with the new Motorola Google Android phone (which features apps for 10 Lonely Planet city guides).

This dosage of science into travel means a new way of searching out a good bagel or a B&B without bedbugs. Or finally joining Jay Maynard and living a life akin to the film “Tron,” but with better acting.

The buzzy notion of a sci-fi “augmented reality,” or “AR” as techies call it, actually dates from labs in the ’30s, and the term was coined about two decades ago by the remarkably bearded Tom Caudell, while using head-mounted digital displays to wire aircraft at Boeing. Some reports say he did so in 1990, others 1992.

I emailed Mr Caudell to ask which was right, and he wrote back in 20 minutes:

It was informally coined in late 1990 and first published in 1992. The name was handy to distinguish from the idea of full virtual reality. VR was catching on in a serious way at the time. And ‘augmented reality’ was handy to distinguish it from that idea.”

Considering “augment” is simply a fancy word for improvement, I thought I’d go back and cite three of the greatest “augmented travel” achievements that enable us to hit the road and explore for our own. With or without fancy headwear.

→ Apologies to trains, rail passes, post cards, guidebooks, compasses, roller suitcases and the almighty quick-dry pants.

I can certainly testify that no feature in a guidebook gets more comments – some quite colorful – than its maps. They’re a staple in modern travel, but the notion of mapping out skies, sea currents, religious domains and conquests is ancient (eg the 16,000-year-old paintings at France’s Lascaux caves depict constellations, while a 9000-year-old Turkish map shows the plan of a Neolithic village). Early navigators weren’t keen on using them though. Chris Columbus, for example, used the currents and stars – maps, he said with a sigh, were “too virtual.”

Yet the first great travel map we know of – one that shows roads and services like hotels (!) – precedes him by a thousand years. The 5th-century AD Roman road map Tabula Peutingeriana connected the Roman empire from Europe to Asia. The original is MIA, but the Globe Museum at the Vienna’s Austrian National Liberary has a 12th-century copy that stretches 7m. (It’s rarely on view.)

“America,” meanwhile, made its debut on German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 map “Universalis Cosmographia,” thought to be the first map of the planet . A thousand copies were made, but only one survives. In 2003, US Library of Congress paid the Wolfegg Castle in Germany US$10 million for it, and put it on view for all to see.

The first “travel papers” allowing safe passage across foreign lands date to Persian travelers 2500 years ago (per the Old Testament anyway), while the 15th-century English monarch King Henry V (who was “well educated,” yet “stern and ruthless” per the official website of the British Monarchy) is credited for promoting travel with the issue of real passports. (Though he may have just wanted easier clearance to claim France.)

In medieval times, the term came up either to allow the bearer to “pass” through the “porte” (city wall gate), or, if Louis XIV is to be believed, to travel from ports in ships (“passe ports“). By the late 19th century their use softened as railroads crossed Europe, though security in WWI brought them back for good, eventually evolving from fold-out papers with attached photos to booklets after WWII. (See an interesting Wanderlust article on its history.)

Passports changed travel by bureaucracizing it, but also enabling and inspiring it. Who hasn’t looked longingly at fellow travelers’ passports stamps, or been instantly revived after a globe-hopping flight with that swift, certain stamp from an immigration officer and the smell of freshly applied ink?

A car only goes so far without roads, and – especially in the (still train-challenged) US – the rollout of the interstate during the Eisenhower administration, and highways like Route 66 during the Depression were travel game-changers. But trace those roads back – passing all the roadside billboards, truck stops and huge balls of twine built up along the way – and you’ll find your way to the Lincoln Highway, the country’s first trans-continental highway system, dating from 1913.

It wasn’t always a pretty sight. A one-way trip from New York to San Francisco, with stops in Chicago and Yellowstone and Yosemite, could take 30 days, if averaging 20 miles an hour, and camping outdoors on the plains on many nights.

The feisty Ernest McGaffey, of the Automobile Club of Southern California, wrote of its impact in a terrific 1922 New York Times article, and noted how it was one-fifth the cost of a European tour. He wrote, proudly, “Transcontinental motoring… has grown to IMPORTANT PROPORTIONS [my emphasis] during the last few years.” I want that on a t-shirt.

Of the road’s great draw, Mr McAffey timelessly testified:

“Nothing braces the mind and body as much as one of these catch-as-catch-can journeys where style is banished from the calendar. Sometimes you may lose sight of what day of the week or the month it is, and even the sun may be the main reliance as to what the time is. But you will soak your soul in the primitive draughts of sun, rain, wind and freedom.”

That’s augmented vision, Mr McAffey.

About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
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