how to really #GetAtHome in this world

Navigate Me – GPS Tech, Tools, and the Suunto Ambit @FW1.5

GPS is a technology, along with heart rate analysis, that fascinates me.

As argued before, I think that what it offers us are great tools to use as symbols of our place(s) in this world and tools for their further exploration.

Suunto’s Ambit (see earlier review here) has recently been updated to firmware 1.5, its navigation capabilities have been greatly improved with that – and some of the resulting discussions are perfect illustrations of ways in which we are not at home in this world. Ways we often end up using such tools, and becoming “tools” ourselves.

Let’s have a look.

In the case of the Ambit, it’s in Suunto’s Movescount platform that you can set it up as you want, as far as it lets itself be customized (which is pretty far), and where you can now also create routes with waypoints along which the Ambit can guide you:

It is limited, however, to a route (or routes) consisting of a total of 100 waypoints – and people have been complaining about it.

Admittedly, if you wanted to store a number of routes, that limit may be a problem. The Ambit is a digital tool for which a (very) regular internet connection is necessary in any case, though. The complaint, however, is that those 100 waypoints aren’t enough for a single route of, e.g., an ultramarathon. Furthermore (?), you cannot be guided along a track, “turn-by-turn,” as on a handheld GPS. Rather, you have to mark waypoints along a route, either while on the move or, more likely, in preparing where you want to go in advance, on the Google map you find in Movescount. No following a track you downloaded off the internet and imported to Movescount if you don’t set the necessary waypoints yourself. And only 100 of them.

This argument fascinates me to no end. Not as a critique of the technology, but as a sign of the ways in which we give up on learning to be at home, having skills, and taking responsibility.

Look.

As you can see in my review video for the navigation, it works nicely. The navigation screen simply adds itself to the displays used for the exercise. At every waypoint, the Ambit tells you that you are approaching it when you get within 100 m distance and shows how to continue to the next point when you are within 20 m of the current waypoint:

So, with enough points – if only that were possible – you could just about run without ever looking away from the GPS on your wrist. Which is, of course, just the problem.

This tool, unlike an automotive GPS, for example, is made for outdoors use, even where there may be no trails. So, there cannot be a database of the usual paths – read: roads – to take. Now, that could mean – as some argue – that it’s all the more important to store enough waypoints yourself so that you can mark a trail well enough to not get in trouble, e.g. having two waypoints connected as the crow flies – with a chasm in between that you would need to go around, but don’t see as your GPS points the way.

There’s something to be said for that, but the direction in which that notion points is that of wanting to replace the skill in reading the land and the maps, and the responsibility for the proper decision on where to go to, with an electronic gadget’s guidance. When you think about what that means – which is, giving up on power and responsibility even for where you go when you are outdoors, in favor of reliance on a battery-powered small screen – it’s crazy.

An outdoors instrument, as nice as it can be, is still just a tool or a toy. Having a track (and heart rate and all that) recorded thanks to it is fun and can be a decent guide in proper training; having some guidance as to where to go is nice and helpful – but constantly watching a tiny gadget to be guided along a distinct track while being in the great outdoors which begs for attention is just absurd.

It is just like the – all-too-common – stories of automobile drivers who relied on their GPS’ guidance… and when it said “turn left,” they turned left into the oncoming traffic of a one-way street that wasn’t in the database as such, or onto a bridge that didn’t exist anymore. Truck drivers have gotten stuck, trusting the technology implicitly, even though it was made for standard cars and not for a tall truck, hence discounting max headroom…

In the outdoors, and even just in our neighborhoods, a big part of the learning involved in its exploration should be that of building skill, reading maps (and remembering to bring them in the first place), getting back to the human pace, and developing our own mental map of our surroundings.

So, check the map beforehand, store some waypoints for guidance if it’s really necessary for fun or safety – but remember that the power and pleasure you seek comes from the development of your own fitness and skills, not from a toy/tool you bought.

    • Joël on 2012/06/29 at 22:19

    Reply

    “So, with enough points – if only that were possible – you could just about run without ever looking away from the GPS on your wrist”
    I would write the opposite in fact: if it was possible to have far many more points than 100, and up going up to so many points than ending navigating on a track, we would look _less_ to the watch than what we are doing with the current navigation.

    Let me explain my point: when navigating on a “dense” track, we can have an alarm based on a distance from this track, and so this way we _never_ look at the watch till the alarm warn us that we are leaving the track, then a quick look is enough for adjusting. I’m pretty sure than with such “navigating on track” behavior, I would have looked less to the watch than what I did on last sunday, when navigating with Ambit fm 1.5 on a 22 km with 60 waypoints.

    I’m still learning how to get the best from Ambit fm 1.5, but I believe the way to go is navigating on a track. Hope Suunto will implement that.

    Thank you for your video and your post, even if I’m not coming to the same conclusions as yours :-)

      • Gerald on 2012/06/30 at 21:36
      • Author

      Reply

      Quite right, I’d still say that I don’t even want an alarm warning me I’m deviating from my chosen track – that would just tempt me to run somewhere completely different; it would still mean handing over responsibility to a watch.
      Even more true that different approaches make different people happy, though – and I can see where you might be happier with a track function like you described. I’m not sure it could be implemented, or would be practical, though. For one, there are memory/hardware limitations, and then you’d always have to draw in the track exactly enough that no twist and turn takes you outside your chosen track, as far as the Ambit is concerned (or the other way round, perhaps).

      Of course, I may be saying that I find 50 waypoints for a 75 km track – my next and biggest mountain marathon of this year – to be too many already… but we’ll see what I’ll say after I’ve tried it out. Stay tuned ;)
      [The track/route I’m referring to is here on Movescount; it’s considered ~56 km only because of, well, twists and turns… and perhaps the effect of altitude differences not being properly accounted for.]

    • Dirk on 2012/07/03 at 04:38

    Reply

    Nice writeup Gerald!
    I like your argument, while I would wish the navigation function on the watch to become more refined, especially in quick use and skipping waypoints.

    Another wonderful feature would be the option of having the watch automatically pickup the next closest waypoint, should one decide, to leave the path (accidentally or otherwise).

      • Gerald on 2012/07/05 at 21:09
      • Author

      Reply

      Yeah, that (skipping a waypoint automatically) is something I remembered from the X9 and was surprised to see the Ambit not doing… but of course, that might still come ;)

  1. Reply

    Hello, im Ambit user and i really love it !
    Thanks for sharing navigation mode ! i had some doubs about it…
    Keep enjoying !!

    Cheers,
    Oscar.

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