Virtual Roads – Part One


Where do we start with virtual roads? Well to define what we mean by the term virtual road, it’s easier to think of as a map. It could be an existing road, or it could be a route one takes to get someplace—like directions. To understand why the fancy term, virtual road, we need to consider the history of roads.

Surprising Origin of Routes & Roads

In England a traveller might observe that some roads meander about from town to city and other roads go directly from place to place without regard to any obstacle. To the citizen of the UK these are known as Saxon roads and Roman roads, because modern roads were either built on top of one or the other.

holidays-1283014_1920Saxons built their roads along the path of least resistance, which generally means a bridge ends up at the best historical place to ford across the river long before the bridge existed. It also means that a lot of the roads in England were built where a cow pushed aside the brush making it easier for humans to pass as well.

Roman roads, on the other hand, are professionally surveyed. They were an important part of the empire, not only for efficient commerce, but because the faster you could move an army the better control you could maintain. So, when Romans encountered stream, they bridged it, when they encountered a mountain, they tunnelled though it. Roman roads are straight, city to city, and they withstand the test of time.

But before anyone bothered to build a road, prehistoric man had rough directions from one civilized spot to another—most of which were built along water sources. Therefore, the earliest formal routes to get places start in about 1160 BC where the trails of seasonal rivers, also used as roads were placed on a map. The oldest road map used in a commuting sense goes back to 235BC. It shows a number of towns along the Black Sea.

Maps, Past & Future

There are other names worth mentioning in the history of road mapping such as McNally’s Road Map of New York (1904) and Michelin (their first road map was in 1910) but instead I want to concentrate on using tech to imitate the road, rather than just giving a plan of the road.

android-1869510_1920.jpgA moving map display was first introduced in the 1950s using paper chart. The only problem is that they could only navigate one specific road, so if you had to travel somewhere obscure you were out of luck. Using a cell phone as a guide to where you are has some similarities to using a moving map display, except of course you are not confined to one road. With larger devices, such as the iPad, there’s room to change the display and allow for something resembling a Sat-Nav when using Google Maps.

Ah, Google Maps, certainly one of the most used systems to work out where you are. It began in 2004 as a downloadable desktop program by Where 2 Technologies. It began by two brothers, Lars and Jed Rasmussen, and quickly added some of the processes of Keyhole, a program acquired at a similar time. Google Maps as we recognize it today began in February 2005 programmed using Javascript and XML. In 2012 Google announced it had 7,100 employees and freelancers which worked in the mapping process and in 2017 it had a billion users worldwide.

When Google Maps was created though Sat Navs had been going for a least twenty years. A Honda built with the “Electro Gyro-Cator” in 1981. Instead of using satellites it used “inertial” navigation systems, meaning that the information couldn’t be updated, Read Only Memory in other words. Cassettes allowing information to be changed would come along in 1983.

Since computer tapes retailed at $20 (the equivalent of $60 today) it is unlikely that many people paid to get their navigation device updated.

The first system which relied on a satellite came along in 1990 and wouldn’t gain a voice until two years later. It relies on a vector map which each house or street encoded as its geographical co-ordinates. The Navigation Data Standard ensures that all SatNavs use the same system and will be updated as and when needed. There are many ways to store the road database, not just ROM but also a flash memory, a hard disk or a CD.

There are other things that can be done with a virtual road. This is the subject of the next article.




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