It’s been a long, long time since satellite navigation was sexy.
We’re not talking about satellites. Satellites are sexy, if by sexy you mean amazing and world-changing and possessing the potential for gratifyingly-large explosions if something goes wrong on the launchpad. What we’re talking about is navigating by satellite: using a digital display to find your way from A to B. It’s become boring. As Google Maps and company have penetrated our lives, making it easy to not only figure out where we are, but what’s on our route, and how their Yelp reviews stack up, we’ve become used to it. It doesn’t wow us any more.
The problem goes deeper — and it’s a problem that’s really starting to hit satellite navigation companies in the stomach. Fifteen or even ten years ago, if you laid out some cash for a satnav, you’re almost certainly doing it because you are about to embark on a big trip. You needed directions beyond your everyday commute. Owning one of those chunky plastic boxes meant that you were about to go walk-about — or drive-about, as the case may be. You weren’t just buying a piece of hardware. You were buying travel. You were buying adventure. Now? Just pull out your phone. Google has you covered, as it does with so many other things.
If you’re a traditional satnav company, like Garmin or TomTom, you’ve got a real problem. Over the past few years, TomTom has had to sound multiple share and profit warnings, and Garmin has only recently recorded a profit by diving headfirst into the wearables market. It’s been left to independent outfits to pick up the reins, and to prove that the traditional satnav system as we know it is not dead.
One of those companies is Hammerhead, a New York outfit who had a rather interesting idea. The one place we can’t use satellite navigation effectively, as it stands, is when we are riding bikes. Not only are you having to pay far more attention to your surroundings, meaning that you simply can’t deal with the amount of information displayed on an average Google Maps screen, but you’re also having to use both hands all the time. How, Hammerhead founder Piet Morgan thought, could you tap into that? Could you design something that not only solves the fundamental problem of navigating while on two wheels, but also tap into our desire for wanderlust?
What’s really interesting is that Hammerhead have inadvertently solved a very frustrating problem for satellite navigation makers that has nothing to do with perceived sexiness. Simply put: we rely on satnav systems more than ever, but we aren’t willing to pay money for them.
What they came up with was a device that takes three seconds to understand. Shaped like a T, it’s designed to sit on the handlebars, and after being paired with the phone, it indicates turns using a series of coloured lights. It’s simple, good-looking, and feels like it invites exploration.
“Hardware comes with all sorts of unique challenges that software companies don’t have,” says Jon Morgan, Piet’s brother and the company’s VP of Business Development and Operations. “It’s a real challenge. You’ve got the basic shape, but then you have to fit all the electronics inside that, and this kind of thing has never been made before. It was a great experience, but there were many a sleepless night trying to troubleshoot elements of the hardware.”
The real trick that the Hammerhead relies on isn’t its use in urban environments. By drawing on deep data, it can even navigate rural trails, allowing bikers to find the best spots. Hammerhead isn’t the only company tapping into the potential of the two wheeled market; that old warhorse TomTom recently released a satnav unit designed specifically for scooters.
What’s really interesting is that Hammerhead have inadvertently solved a very frustrating problem for satellite navigation makers that has nothing to do with perceived sexiness. Simply put: we rely on satnav systems more than ever, but we aren’t willing to pay money for them. A 2008 Cornell University study found that GPS systems were quite literally rewiring our brains, and that long-term exposure showed “evidence for loss of environmental engagement…GPS eliminated much of the need to pay attention.”
Morgan is skeptical. “I like these kind of philosophical questions. But a question like that has echoes of the ones people ask around technology, and the Internet in particular, being able to provide information at the click of a button. People don’t remember as many facts, because you can look anything up on Wikipedia and blah blah blah…I think it’s interesting to entertain, but a little overblown. Socrates said the same thing about books, but nobody would have to remember anything. A few millennia on, and we’re still okay. I don’t think the technology will diminish our mental capacity in any sense.”