Screencasting and map exploration

I’m always finding surprising new uses for screencast technology, and yesterday was another revelation. On Tuesday I left the MIX show for Berkeley, where I gave a talk at the School of Information to a group that included some of the students whose projects I discussed in my podcast with Bob Glushko and AnnaLee Saxenian. From the San Francisco airport, the normal route to Berkeley would have involved the MacArthur maze, but its recent meltdown dictated an elaborate detour.

I assumed the detour wouldn’t yet be available in the mobile navigation systems, so I spent some time reviewing the route online. Normally I’d print out a couple of maps but I was in a hotel room with no printer handy, so I wound up making a screen recording of the route. It was screencast, sort of, but one that I’d never show anyone, just a reference in case I needed it.

What I captured was a much richer representation of the route than a sequence of still screenshots interspersed with written instructions. At various points along the way, I’d zoom in for more detail, zoom out for context, and toggle back and forth between map view for the roads and hybrid view for buildings and landscape. It would be awkward to have to pull over, pop open the laptop, and review this movie, but I figured if I had to, I could.

As soon as I finished capturing the screencast, though, I knew I wouldn’t need to refer to it, for reasons that remind me of the dynamics of writing down lists of things to do. More often than not, once I write things down, I don’t need to refer back to them. The act of writing gives them a mental permanence they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Making the screencast of my route seems to have had a similar effect.  It would be interesting to run the following experiment. Have one group of subjects explore a route in an online mapping service, then measure how well they can follow the route. Have another group of subjects use the mapping software in the same way, while also requiring them to capture a movie of that interaction, and then measure their performance. I predict that the latter group will perform better because recording things that you might (or might not) later play back has a similar effect to writing things down that you might (or might not) later read. The process makes you think in a more active and intentional way, which leads to a more permanent mental representation.

It’s occurred to me before that every online mapping service should offer the ability to record an interactive exploration of a route, play it back online, and also make the screencast available for downloading and offline viewing. I still think that’s a great idea. What I hadn’t considered is that the most valuable part of this process might not be the use of the final output, but rather the act of producing it.


  1. Hi Jon, excuse the self-promotion but it is pertinent to your topic of walking through a route. If you enjoyed the route exploration take a look at . Once you have finished creating your route you will see a link on the right side of the screen to export your route. You can either export your route to KML format suitable for uploading to a GPS device or export as KML (used for Google Earth). Viewing it in Google Earth allows you to hit play (under the route lists) to see Google Earth trace your route bouncing from mile to mile. I would be interested to see the results of your experiment with another group watching a Google earth preview of the route.

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