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The fractured landscape of GPS: when digital glitches break into the real world

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Here Be Dragons GPS video
Here Be Dragons GPS video

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has become one of the most trustworthy ways for people to navigate from place to place, thanks namely to GPS-enabled smartphones and mobile devices. But is it really so reliable? That's the question asked by architect and animator Will Gowland in his breathtaking experimental film: "Here Be Dragons." The movie, which Gowland actually completed and published last year —only to see renewed interest this week after it was featured on the German tech site Nerdcore— was "the culmination of a years worth of research and interest," he tells The Verge via email. What the film illustrates is actual live streaming GPS data from Bedford Square, London, which Gowland has taken and run through a script, converting it into pixellated landscape formations that just in and out of real footage of Alaska.

"the film is never the same whenever you watch it."

Because the source GPS data is constantly changing depending on different variables — number of satellites and their accuracy, for example — Gowland's script takes the new variables into account every time it plays, generating new landscapes for each view. "So the film is never the same whenever you watch it," he explains.

Gowland said he came up with the idea while on a research trip to Alaska, after he heard Inuit elders expressing their trepidation about their grandchildren not knowing how to navigate the Arctic landscape thanks to recent inhospitable conditions. "I guess the main takeaway from the film and the larger story about GPS and our reliance on it, is that this new digital landscape of navigation and control is just as fallible if not more than the physical," Gowland adds. "Think twice next time you use your TOM TOM or iPhone to get you to the shops and back! Many more before you have ended up in a pond round a bend that didn't exist!"