Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Instead of just telling you to head north, it uses local businesses as landmarks.
I’ve felt embarrassed more than a few times standing at the corner of an intersection and spinning around like a lost puppy. In my hands is my trusty smartphone, with Google Maps opened and a voice telling me to head north. I start walking in what I think is the right direction—only to find out from the arrow on my phone that I should be walking another way.
It’s a common frustration among people trying to translate on-screen instructions into movements. As my colleague Vicky Gan recently reported, we humans tend to navigate using landmarks—“go past the coffee shop and turn right at the bank”—instead of cardinal directions. So when our phones tell us to head south or northwest in an unfamiliar territory, it can make us even more lost than we already are.
Now, there’s an app that gives you direction just as a real human being would. Called Walc, the app uses a large database to point out nearby landmarks—like a restaurant, park, or a museum—and gives you turn-by-turn directions. If you don’t spot the shop its points out, you can hit the “Can’t See” button and the app will show you another landmark. The app also tells you which streets to turn on to, just as Google Maps does.
There’s also a “Pocket” mode that will guide you using voice commands. So rather than staring at a screen, use your eyes to seek out the McDonald’s or Starbucks that’s along the path.
The whole mission, says Walc founder and CEO Allison McGuire, is to create a more walkable world. “I discovered that driving directions and technology [were] becoming increasingly sophisticated, but it wasn’t the same case for walkers,” she tells CityLab. Yet when she surveyed hundreds of people about the idea of a walking navigation app, she found that—if given the right tools—people preferred to walk from place to place.
McGuire and her team are working to add even more features in the near future.* She says that the program is constantly learning from users’ behavior. “Walc often measures shortcuts that you take based on the direction,” she says. “So we might tell you to make a right at this block but we see that people are constantly cutting across the park. Why is that?”
Eventually, the app will be able customize the best routes based on user preferences. “So if you like Sephora versus Modell’s Sporting Goods, we would show you a different route,” McGuire says. “What we want to do is give you the quickest visual cue that we possibly can and get you walking in the right direction.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the app is still in beta mode. The app is public and available for download.