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How to build a satnav that doesn’t make you stupid.

By Memrise Blog

Satnav is making us stupid. You often read of people doing things like traveling 400 miles in the wrong direction, or driving into rivers, or turning disastrously onto train tracks– all by too credulously following their satnav’s directions.

But these are only the extreme cases. Anyone with a smart-phone knows how even under normal conditions using satnav tends quickly to atrophy your ability to remember and navigate places and routes by yourself. You just don’t need these skills anymore.

It needn’t be that way. Here’s seven ways satnav could be re-designed to positively assist in making you learn about your environment, while still getting you easily to your destination.

1.) Point out interesting things

Satnav is designed to save us the bother of noticing the outside world. But if you don’t notice it, you don’t remember it.

Memorable satnav would be like a chatty companion, always pointing out objects of interest as they passed, giving you a generous shot at remembering them.

“We’re driving through the town of Wem. Notice that the buildings are all pretty new. That’s because the Great Fire of Wem destroyed most of the town in 1677. Began when a 14 year old girl knocked over a candle. Anyhow- here’s the town hall, for what it’s worth”

2.) Make all routes unique

Satnav makes all journeys the same, yet each is unique. Memory adores what is unique. Memorable satnav would make each journey completely unique- sometimes meaningfully, sometimes by appealing to amusing trivia- a job for which the internet is almost designed. E.g.

_” Here’s an interesting piece of trivia. Your journey begins at an altitude of 145 metres, and ends an hour later by the sea. That’s a fall of…

“145 metres.”

“Correct. One point. At that rate, you would reach the centre of the earth if you carried on going for…

” 23 years?”.


3.) Demand active recall

Directions go in one ear, and out the other when you use satnav: you only need them for as long as you are making your next turn, after all. But without any repetition, memories don’t get formed.

Memorable satnav would prompt you to recall the places you’ve just been. There’s no better way to form memories than by being forced to recall them.

_“ok, just now, we passed through which 14th century market town in order to join the A458?


“Correct. Ten points. You now have the Mr. Moustache achievement.”_

4.) Help you make connections

Satnav doesn’t notice when you’ve done a route before- and quite often, as a result, neither do you. You just don’t need to make any connections. But memories are connections, so you don’t end up making any memories as a result.

Memorable satnav would notice when you are nearby something you know, and it would help you make the connection.

“You’ll recall that last time you passed through here, you stopped at the Coach and Horses, and ate dinner there. Here’s a message to your future self you took the time to record “Mate- glad you’re still alive. Whatever you do, don’t eat the Butternut Squash”

5.) Vary experience creatively

Satnav typically takes you on the same route, even if there are other interesting possibilities that would take only fractionally longer.

Memorable satnav would creatively vary the routes to give you a broader and more interconnected experience of places you pass through frequently. As with all learning, the broader the range of examples, the more powerful and flexible the understanding that results.

“Ok, last time we were on our way to Burnley, as you no doubt recall, we went straight on at the approaching junction. This time, for badness, we’ll take a left after the postbox, and go cross-country. There are some lovely views, and we’ll pass St. Thomas’ church, where the poet Silvia Plath is buried”.

6.) Remind you of past routes

Satnav forgets about the trips you’ve taken in the past as soon as you have. But if you’re going to remember anything, then you need to be reminded of it, not only as you’re learning it- but after a week, a month, a year. This is called spaced repetition. Intelligent satnav would give you just such optimally scheduled reminders of the routes you’ve taken in the past.

_“Where were we going when we passed a chimney last week?”

“The giant one?”



“Wrong. Minus five points. We were going to Peterborough.”_

7) Make geography socially relevant

We’re social beings. Facebook has taught us that we like to “share information” with our friends.

To make our journeys more memorable, satnav should draw attention to our friends’ travels in the past.

“Your friend Dan had a breakdown a year back just on the right here, right in the middle of nowhere. And get this- his mobile ran out of battery, and he had to wade through a river to get to a farmhouse where he could call a breakdown crew. I’ve taken the liberty of auto-dialling him now, actually, so that you can help him re-live this painful episode”

I’d actually really like to make an app that does this. Easily done by scraping Wikipedia and Facebook for geographically tagged info, and using collaborative filtering for popular directions etc, a bit of AI to narrate the stuff, and yadadadada all the techno babble I hear round the office all day.

It’s probably worth mentioning that Memrise is currently providing something pretty damn close to the vocab-equivalent of this experience. Check it out