Five centuries on, thanks to the recent developments in mapping technology, anyone with a smartphone and the right app can navigate our cities and roads.
With the introduction of Augmented Reality (AR), we are now able to navigate environments without the aid of physical signage. Applications such as Across Air AR Browser, which utilises your smartphone's camera to overlay information on a screen, can help you find restaurants and cinemas, or Theodolite which uses the phones compass, GPS and camera to provide more advanced navigation tools suited to hiking and skiing.
Google has taken this a step further with its Project Glass augmented reality glasses, set for release in 2014. The glasses stream information directly to the lenses, showing information to the user as and when it becomes available. This could include directional information or updates from the user's social network circles.
Google has also created the first licensed, driverless car. Reuters reports Googles self-driven cars to rely on video cameras, radar sensors, lasers, and a database of information collected from manually driven cars to help navigate. In years to come, this could mean that physical road signs become a thing of the past.
Such tools also have the potential to affect the way we navigate the high street, Nick Smith of Output magazine notes AR is starting to replace informational signage at shopfronts and points of sale. Estate agent signage is perhaps the industry with the most experience in augmented reality schemes. One application called ZipRealty lets potential home-buyers take a picture of a street and see which houses are available for sale or lease, which properties have sold recently and at what price.
So what are the implications on the built environment?
Keiichi Matsuda, a recent graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, presents the effect that AR will have on how we interact with our environments in a much more frightening fashion in his 3D video pieces entitled Augmented City & Augmented (Hyper) Reality: Domestic Robocop.
The reality is (excuse the pun) that AR is more likely to integrate itself in a way that is appropriate to our needs than is shown in Matsuda's vision, but we can take it as a warning that it should be used only when the situation requires and only when it can enhance the way we experience the environments in which we exist.
It's clear that the technologies available lend themselves perfectly to the delivery of transient information “information that is specific to an individual at a given moment in time. Used well they could help to create spaces free from visual clutter“ used badly, they could add to it.
The future of physical signage
With all the possibilities that new technologies present, one might be forgiven for asking what place does physical signage have?
Yi-Fu Tuan in his book Landscapes of Fear describes how architects view signage as the oean assault on the aesthetics of their creation and an insult to the self-evidence of their spatial design this belief has led in many cases to the creation of transparent signs. Tellingly the sign outside the Royal Institute of British Architects headquarters in London is made from glass, for fear of obscuring the building beyond.
If the signs that exist on our streets and in our buildings are to enhance the spaces through which we walk, it's essential that we use them to create a sense of place. Tuan states œplaces said to have a strong sense of place have a strong identity and character.
One definition of place, proposed by Tuan, is that a place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. Any time a location is identified or given a name, it is separated from the undefined space that surrounds it.
Here lies the key, the signs we produce should promote the places that they name, they should work with the architecture not against it.
I believe the answer lies in ensuring that physical signage maintains a sense of permanence, it should be beautifully integrated into the buildings and cities in which they stand.