Geographic information displays (GIDs) such as digital maps with navigation guidance have become an integral part of our everyday life. The Greater Zurich Area has become a center of competence for GID research thanks to the access to talents. Additionally, some of the leading companies in this field such as Google, ESRI and Disney are located in Zurich. Dr. Tyler Thrash, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich, is studying people’s navigation behavior in real and virtual environments to understand the impact of technology on our navigation skills.

The main goals of GeoViSense

When seeking directions towards a new restaurant or the quickest connection to the office, people will retrieve their smartphones and navigate towards the destination almost effortlessly. However, does the ease with which we can now find our way come with a price? Will the use of such technologies lead to a decrement in the spatial abilities of the users? Without GIDs, are we more likely to become lost than previous generations? The new European Research Council Advanced Grant “GeoViSense” attempts to answer these questions (among others) with systematic studies of people’s navigation behavior in real and virtual environments.

As part of the Digital Society Initiative at the University of Zurich, we are also interested in questions at the forefront of science and society more generally. Using GIDs as our primary test case, we will attempt to address topics such as the relationship between technology and human abilities, the adaptation of technology to fit specific situations, and the personalization of technology for specific types of users. For example, people may respond to stress during navigation by focusing on a limited amount of information that is easily available. Is there some way to adapt the GID to account for this change in the person’s behavior?  How can we detect when a person is under stress during navigation using physiological and behavioral measurements?

Significance for the Greater Zurich Area

 One of the greatest assets for research on GIDs in the Greater Zurich Area is the extremely talented student population. Zurich is home to excellent universities such as ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich that consistently rank among the top 100 worldwide in relevant subjects such as computer science and geography (see Another asset for research on GIDs in Zurich is the colocation of several companies (e.g., Google, ESRI, Disney) that are developing related technologies. The academic research conducted by the GeoViSense team can complement developments in industry by teaching students the necessary skills to obtain industry jobs and by providing solid evidence for or against the usefulness of particular technological features of GIDs.

Current projects

Over the past few months, the new research team has steadily progressed on the development of experiment ideas and research materials, as well as the general theoretical framework in which this work is embedded. Our research plan is organized into two aspects, emphasizing research in either real or virtual environments. While behavior in virtual environments is easier to control and predict, studies in real environments allow us to determine the extent to which our predictions generalize to everyday situations. These two aspects are both necessary for deriving a complete understanding of human spatial behavior and GIDs. Mobile physiological devices (e.g., heart rate sensors) can also be validated in a relatively controlled virtual reality setup and then employed to investigate real world behavior.

This year, we will begin implementing a series of studies that investigate whether GIDs can be designed to improve spatial memory without significant increases in the time required to find a destination. Towards this end, we will update the existing hardware and software components of our virtual reality laboratory, design virtual cities for experiments with GIDs during large-scale navigation and validate the use of electroencephalography (EEG) for measuring stress. These tools will be critical for the success of our current research and medium-term future as a research team.

About the author

Dr. Tyler Thrash is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Geographic Information Visualization and Analysis at the University of Zurich (, as well as a fellow with the Digital Society Initiative ( He obtained his PhD in Psychology at Miami University (USA) in 2013. His previous research focused on the role of environmental structure in shaping human spatial memory, the impact of crowd dynamics on individuals’ navigation decisions, and the relationship between stress and navigation performance.

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