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Lincoln University research shows technology enhances the outdoor experience

Lincoln University research shows technology enhances the outdoor experience
October 9, 2016

While traditionalists often hold the view that digital technology has no place in natural settings, new Lincoln University research suggests mobile devices are more likely to enhance outdoor pursuits than detract from them.

PhD student Caroline Dépatie has surveyed recreationists in the Port Hills to discover how technology can transform the outdoor experience. She also investigated whether people found it difficult to deal with the paradox of experiencing the natural environment while using their devices.

Dr Roslyn Kerr, Lincoln University's Head of the Department of Tourism, Sport and Society and one of the project supervisors, explains “the Port Hills are a unique peri-urban setting, in that they combine the natural and the urban, so perhaps technological devices will be used more readily here than in true wilderness settings.

“Some research participants felt awkward about using technology due to its potential to erode their experience of nature.

“But more commonly, they used devices to enhance their experience. Many felt safer carrying a cellphone and some listened to music or used fitness trackers to increase their motivation to exercise.

“Ultimately, they used their devices in different ways for a personalised experience. They described making very deliberate decisions about when and how to use their digital devices based on their motivations and setting.”

Dr Kerr says these findings are significant, as recreation policymakers could benefit from offering varied technological options in outdoor areas rather than considering policies that restrict the use of technology.

Dr Kerr added “outdoor recreation literature might also want to move away from the view that technology is detrimental to the outdoor recreation experience.”

Initially, more than 500 research participants were surveyed about which digital devices they used during their activities and why they used them. Then 30 recreationists were interviewed about how the devices either altered or enhanced their experiences.

The most popular activities performed by research participants were walking and mountain biking, and 87% carried some form of digital technology, most commonly a cellphone.

Reasons included safety, communicating with friends and family, taking photos, collecting fitness data, and listening to music.

Dr Kerr continued “recreationists often carried their phones to increase their perception of safety, but they acknowledged that sometimes it provided a false sense of security, as the phone is limited in its ability to act to save an individual. Concerns were raised about limited battery life, breakability and network coverage.”

A mountain biker said her experience was enhanced by using technology to self-track fitness data, which pushed her to go further each time and increased competition among friends.

Those who listened to music said it boosted their motivation to exercise and enhanced the enjoyment of the activity, but only if they were alone.

Dr Kerr concluded “digital devices were not seen as eroding solitude; they offered a way to potentially improve the per-urban outdoor recreation experience

“However, participants seemed to deliberately leave their devices behind when recreating with others, as it represented a potential disruption to the social experience.

“This adds weight to the fact that people are happy to be able to pick and choose when they use digital technology in outdoor settings, rather than be deprived of the option to use their devices at all.”

Dr Kerr addressed this topic at the recent New Zealand Recreation Association Outdoors Forum.

Images: Solar charger (top) and the Port Hills (below).

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