Some people are just bad with directions, which is probably why GPS navigation units sell so well. Those devices make it so people don’t need to think. So what happens to the ability to read maps? It is assumed to degrade.

There is more than just knowing directions when it comes to understanding maps. Over at Wired there is an article on why some people are bad at reading maps. Unsurprisingly, abstract visual manipulation is needed, but so are other mental skills.

“Map use and performance is pretty intangible, all the interesting activity is happening inside the human brain,” said Lobben, who’s based at the University of Oregon. “You have to study it a variety of ways.” For her, that means a combination of lab-based tests, observing how people navigate in the real world, and employing eye-tracking equipment and brain scans.

So far she’s has found two aspects of map reading that vary considerably from one person to another. (Test yourself on them with the example images below.)

One has to do with people’s ability to shift perspective from the street-level view in front of them to the bird’s eye perspective of a map. Lobben has developed computer-based tests to assess this skill. In one (see right), subjects see a map and a street-level photograph of a place on the map. Then they have to chose which of two arrows (or neither), when placed on the map, would indicate the same direction as the person who took the photo was facing. This turns out to be a remarkably good predictor of real-life map navigation, Lobben says.

On the digital front, Crytek ran a competition called Off the Map that challenged teams to make a 3D environment of an historical place using documents from the British Library. The results are pretty cool with a team from  De Montfort University in Leicester winning the competition. They recreated 17th century London and it looks great!

The team, known as Pudding Lane Productions, has kept a great journal on what they did to make their environment stand out. In short, it was their attention to historical detail is what made their map so successful.

There are also people mapping video games and their levels in case you get lost in them.

For virtual worlds that will hopefully stay digital, there is a website dedicated to documenting those maps. is your online atlas for your favourite video game classics.

If you want even more map action, check out Map Porn.