Stupid Chart Tricks?

Electronics January 2003
By Ben Ellison

Stupid Chart Tricks?
Mapping developers take us into the future, whether we like it or not.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Chart Tricks
• Part 2: Chart Tricks
• Electronics Q&A
• Gladiator Autopilot
• Northstar 958
• Icom M602 VHF
• Furuno Fax30

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I sit down to this column fresh from a remarkable conference called Pop!Tech where attendees get to experience truly "Big Thinkers" as they contemplate what all this darn technology really means and where it's headed. Boats--let alone charts--were never mentioned, but the conference, along with some recent whiz-bang mapping developments, inspires me to engage you in some big thinking.

For starters, let us marvel at how rapidly and pervasively constant GPS plotting on digital charts has rocked the practice of navigation. For much of the last century, we developed some pretty amazing electronics, but they were always assistants to a pencil-on-chart process. Then in little more than a decade, plotters and PCs became the center of the work. Now I'm seeing plotters installed on skiffs, and half the inquiries coming to my inbox are from boaters--albeit many of them cautious and/or skeptical--interested in making the transition. Heck, I myself have a pocket-size gizmo that shows me where I am on a picture-perfect image of a paper chart.

Note my emphasis on the paper-like quality of the digital image. Most of us want our electronic chart tables to be familiar, and the manufacturers are doing a pretty good job of satisfying us. In terms of iconography, scales, and much more, digital charts are a lot like paper ones. But a theme that courses through Pop!Tech is how our species is destined to invent whatever we can invent, regardless of the consequences. When you're talking about biotech and robotics, that's scary. Applied to cartography, the relentless force of innovation gets you the wild new chart types that illustrate this column. I have no doubt that many navigators are going to look at the latest from companies like Maptech, Raymarine, and Nobeltec and say, "Hell, no!" I somewhat share the feeling, but (post-Pop!Tech) I am wondering just how long we'll cling to a paper metaphor in a digital world.

Certainly the paper books related to navigation are going away at a rapid rate. Consider tide tables. It used to be that you'd laboriously scan an index to find a tide station that was close to your location, for which you'd be rewarded with a terse summation of the day's highs and lows. Now most plotters use a screen icon or "find nearest" feature that takes you quickly to a tide graph that contains a lot more information in a much easier-to-understand format. Some PC programs will even animate the tides and resultant currents right on the chart. And so forth with light lists, pilot books, cruising guides, etc. All the interesting information that couldn't fit on a two-dimensional map can now be put where it geo-positionally belongs, with various icons and overlays.

Maptech, arguably the leader in paper-like digital charts, has also always been good with this collateral data. Now check out the disconcerting "spherical view" that's been added to the latest version of Offshore Navigator, which, by the way, is a significant update in many ways. At first it looks like a paper chart wrapped around a basketball. However, thinking big, you have to question how much of the apparent distortion is in the eye of the beholder. Actually it's paper charts that have always suffered some deformation, known as projection, since it is impossible to accurately model the curved surface of the earth on a flat plane. To some extent, spherical view offers a new level of realism. On a more utilitarian level, it's also quite handy for maximizing situational awareness on today's relatively small electronic chart tables, magnifying detail close to the boat while still showing general info about what's farther away.

Next page > Stupid Chart Tricks? continued > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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