The global engineer

E&T on the largely lost art of getting lost and the new-found gadgets that have contributed to that loss.

I like getting lost. I don't see it as a problem when I don't know where I am. I believe it's often when we're wandering without aim, rather than striding purposefully forth to a preset goal, that we really begin to see what's about us.

There's nothing quite like just dawdling and looking, glancing an unfocused eye over whatever you happen to stumble across.

I remember having one long afternoon in a small market town in the Loire with two American friends. As we ambled around the ramparts, their eyes were glued to the guidebook. They kept bemoaning we were lost, even though we knew exactly which town we were in and it was clear we were somewhere on the ramparts. The reason they thought they were lost was because they couldn't locate which page of the guidebook we were on.

This is a new kind of lost, caused by the increasing need to have crutches for our travels. I mean, of course, metaphorical ones. We can't just go, we have to go with purpose and a plan.

There are no longer any journeys without maps. If you can't tell where you're going, your phone can. Many handsets have built-in GPS, where you simply type in the name of the restaurant you're heading for and it will show the best route there. Even if you abandon your car and stride forward on foot, these ferociously efficient devices won't let you escape into the wild. Off the beaten track is never out of range.

The new ViewRanger is an off-road satnav software for your phone providing high-resolution Ordinance Survey Ireland 1:50,000 scale maps with contours and tracks clearly marked, so the Irish wild need not be a wilderness.

You can't even escape deep into the urban jungle. The GPS-based guide - covering Copenhagen, Barcelona, Berlin and most recently London - is a pocket concierge that gives you ideas based on your location and personal tastes, then directs you to the door of your destination. So don't dare take a chance on the local Chinese, as will choose where you eat as well as taking you there.

We've become so obsessed with knowing our personal co-ordinates that the winner of the Gadget You Can't Live Without at the T3 Awards was TomTom's GO930, a satnav system which guarantees it won't lose the signal going through tunnels. I don't know about you, but I would think it's rather difficult to get lost going through tunnels as they are generally long, straight and only have one exit.

The purpose of technology is increasingly to quell our unfounded fear of the unknown - what lies at the end of the tunnel. A system called Travel Buddy - as if it were a friend travelling with you rather than a cold piece of technology - covers over 1,200 destinations.

Individuals can subscribe, but holiday companies have been among the first to buy into this system. First Choice uses it to send snow updates to customers, keeping them up to date on what's happening on the slopes.

It seems, unlike me, other people like to be fully informed of where they are and what's happening. Over 20 per cent of First Choice travellers now take up the Travel Buddy option, paying a small fee for getting resort information sent to their mobiles - weather updates, best local restaurants, local events and even sports results. You can also talk - or at least text - back by sending a keyword message such as 'bar', and you'll get a reply in minutes. Tour operators can also use it to get in touch with clients quickly if there's a problem such as a flight delay.

Although I like getting lost myself, I don't think that's at all the same as losing things. That's very annoying indeed, and far more likely to happen when you're away from home and don't have a regular place to store the keys or recharge the mobile. It's no good having GPS on your phone if you can't find the phone itself. Loc8tor Lite is a credit-card sized device that finds anything you've attached a homing tag to - keys, camera, glasses, handbags and mobile phones. You just have to turn around in a full circle and walk in the direction of the strongest signal. At least it can be ordered through the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, so some of the cost goes to charity.

Loc8tor Lite could even be used to tag your laptop. Live Luggage, the pioneering inventors of the power-assisted luggage I featured in an earlier column, have developed a new product called the Hybrid PA Bag, lighter, smaller and softer than the original suitcase but still power assisted.

This is particularly useful, as physiotherapist Diane Hunter has identified a new condition she calls 'laptop shoulder'. "This can be a chronic and debilitating condition if left untreated," warns Hunter. Hunter carried out her research for Crowne Plaza Hotels, revealing 63 per cent of laptop users suffer from severe pain and discomfort as business practice becomes more mobile. Crowne Plaza commissioned this research after hotel staff noticed a large number of business guests were suffering from pains in their back, neck and shoulders.

The findings also reveal that three-quarters of laptop users carry their laptop in the wrong type of bag, exacerbating the symptoms. Perhaps they should try the Hybrid PA? To help guests overcome laptop shoulder, Hunter has designed an exercise guide specifically for use in hotels, although you have to be at a Crowne Plaza to see it.

But I'm not heading off there. I'm heading off into the unknown, unsure where I'll go and when I'll be back. What bliss.

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