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Review: Tomtom GPS System | icon 029 | November 2005

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words Sam Jacob

The gizmo that could help us navigate our over-complex landscape – and possibly save marriages too.

I almost suffocated from frustration on Paris' Périphérique this August. Lost, and getting loster at 130km per hour, I gave up. And drove. I had no idea where I was going.

Why? Well, my fiancé had refused to read a map. Like many northwestern Europeans, my annual summer holiday usually begins with a catastrophic relationship failure in the attempt to find the right turn off Paris' orbital road. This soul sapping ritual serves to demonstrate just how little you and your partner can achieve as a team, and how pathetic you both are at dealing with the world.

Calculations of speed, distance and direction – the dynamic relationship between representation and reality, between text, drawing and thing – are too complex for a normal couple's capabilities. Quite frankly, we've developed landscapes beyond our own comprehension.

No wonder we've had to invent tools to help us. The market is now full of satellite navigation products that can guide us through interchanges, junctions, on ramps and off ramps. Sat Nav is made possible by the orbiting infrastructure of the Global Positioning System. Developed by the US military, it's made up of 21 satellites, orbiting 20,200km above the earth.

I've had TomTom Mobile 5 on my Nokia 7710 smart phone for a while now. It connects via Bluetooth to a small GPS unit. Currently, its maps only cover the UK. I'd been trying to shoehorn hooky downloaded versions of maps of France onto my 7710 in an attempt to save my relationship. But time, and TomTom's encryption, sealed my desperate fate.

However, the TomTom Go 700 - an all-in-one unit: gps/screen/software/hard disk – provides a map that stretches across Europe: from Ireland to Poland. It makes one imagine a life where one might need that kind of facility. Road haulage? World domination?

This is a modern kind of invention - made by intelligent licensing of different things rather than isolated creativity. In TomTom's case that includes data from Ordnance Survey, GPS, connectivity to other devices via Bluetooth, a modified Linux OS and an ARM processor, and it can be ported to run on Nokia hardware with Symbian operating system. It pulls pieces of function together then binds them with the software equivalent of gaffer tape. It's design by patching, splicing, and opening up ports of communication between different systems.

TomTom's proprietary bit is the navigation and interface - what it does with the map data, and the bit you to interact with. And this is really simple. Type in a destination, and it calculates a route. Then, as you drive (or walk, or cycle) it displays a map with an arrow showing your position. Before a junction it tells you what action to take. If you take a wrong turn, it updates the route. That's it. There are ways of making itineraries, of avoiding roads or places and even of updating traffic and weather information.

Simple, right? But incredible in the way it changes the nature of travelling. It means you can use landscape differently. You'll never need to worry about how to get home. You can head off and explore guided by intuition, then hit the "home" button, which, like Ariadne's ball of string, guides you back to your start point.

The potential of TomTom's technology is immense. As well as guiding you, it also alerts you to nearby POIs - points of interest. The pre-loaded set mainly consist of the nearest McDonald's or petrol station. But you can also make your own, and download sets from GPS hobbyist websites: prehistoric monuments, Roman sites, castles and abattoirs, for example. Which suggests that a device like this might not just expedite your journey, but help you understand why you travel.

It means landscape and information can be linked, which in turn makes all kinds of things possible: novels could be played out in space across a Yorkshire moor, Wiki travel guides could allow access to comments and suggestions from internet users. It could unleash a torrent of amateur psychogeography. It could mean every step was accompanied by Michael Palin, David Attenborough, Julian Cope, Iain Sinclair, AND Peter Ackroyd. Maps are beautiful things. But frustratingly arcane to most of us. TomTom's brilliance is its reinvention of a map as fluid, active and communicative data. It might even make driving around Paris a pleasant experience.


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