The name is perfect. "Etak" refers to a system of navigation used by Micronesian and Polynesian seafarers to navigate from island to island in the vast Pacific Ocean. Much like this device, it operates by "augmented dead reckoning" (as it says in TFA).

The etak system of navigation involves navigating by stars and ocean swells to get the heading, but a key issue when navigating by dead reckoning over long distances is that if you're a fraction of a degree off you may miss your destination and never know it, so it's also vitally important to know how far you've gone. This is hard when there are no landmarks. The navigators estimated their distance by using intermediary islands off to the side, which they viewed as coming towards them (from their point of view, the navigator stays motionless on the open ocean while the world moves towards them) and past them. These reference islands were called etaks.

However, confusingly, the etaks were generally not visible, being beyond the horizon, and sometimes did not even exist. The navigators would have named etaks that they pictured being just over the horizon, whether they were there or not, and would track their procession past their boat. When the set number of etaks had passed, they would know they were in the vicinity of the destination island. If they were not at the right time of day for birds to be out, they would then hang out in the area waiting to spot the birds leaving or returning at dawn or dusk.

So the system involves dead reckoning plus a system of turning the navigators' own well-developed intuition of how far they had travelled into a formalized system of generally-invisible islands that they used as a mental model to externalize this intuition.

(My knowledge of this is from Cognition in the wild, Hutchins, E., 1995.)

Edit: D'oh, I should have finished TFA. This is described at the end, although more roughly.

One the one hand this is a cool story about real technology pioneers. On the other hand, this is a story about people building technology that was so ahead of its time that it had no chance of turning into a good product. Too expensive, too unreliable, too complicated.

I think there are some obvious parallels here to General Magic and the Apple Newton. Very cool technology. Impressive demos. But ultimately the products didn't deliver on the vision. It wasn't until the iPod and capacitive touch screens and tiny hard drives came to the market that the iPhone became possible. Being 20 years early doesn't help.

Similar catastrophically flawed research projects get started today. In the past couple of days the Humane AI pin has been in the news. It's a wearable AI gadget that seems cool but it doesn't work. The tech has to catch up to the vision. It's at least a decade ahead of its time.

> To solve this problem Etak invented ‘augmented dead reckoning’. This used a process to match the position given by the navigation sensors to a topologically correct electronic map. Whenever the vehicle turned you made the assumption that you’re driving on a road. At that point the location could be ‘snapped’ back to the road and the error from the sensors could be reset. This technique was later adopted by all navigation apps and is still in use today.

No way did they invent this. Not even close!

This is called map matching. It predates Etak by at least 20 years, if not more.

This paper was published a decade before which does exactly this: Lezniak TW, Lewis RW, Mcmillen RA. A dead reckoning/map correlation system for automatic vehicle tracking. IEEE Transactions on Vehicular Technology. 1977 Feb;26(1):47-60.

The government was building out this technology in the 50s, here's a RAND report about that.

I suspect there are even earlier examples.

1991 home video demo of an Etak, in a custom housing:

(Bet they didn't think at the time that techies of the future would be watching it in 2024 on the ubiquitous global data network.)

When I started working at TeleAtlas Germany (former Robert Bosch Data; forever a part of TomTom now) in 2005 we still had production processes on the MapEngine technology coming from Etak. We had in-house python bindings that allowed for very productive development. It is fun to see this mentioned here today.
Fantastic story.

> When I worked on the Apple Maps team, 12 of my colleagues were Etak alumni.

What a legacy! It's gratifying to hear of these long-dead companies/products with incredible engineers who are still out there slinging code with the best of them.

Highly inspiring! Will share with my team (and I don't do that often!)

It seems that Etak was to navigation systems what Jodorowsky's Dune was to 1980s sci-fi: a trail blazing endeavour that was wild and wildly innovative, did not fulfill its intended mission but rather set up an entire field for subsequent success.

Also: the design must have included several masterpieces when considering the state of tech in the 1980s: even seeking to the right point on the map cassette is an untrivially hard problem.

It is amazing that they got it to work as well as it did given how it was 15-20 years ahead of its time. Sure the unit ended up costing as much as the car it was mounted in, but given the limitations of the technology of the time that is simply amazing. To get an idea of how ahead of its time this is, it wouldn't be until a year after the release that High Sierra formatting for CD-ROMs would be proposed. A CD Drive would have added even more expense, but it should would have beat out swapping around dozens of cassettes.

I wonder how much memory it had. The contemporary PC-XT using the same chip started out with 128kb but could be expanded to 640kb. One can imagine it had to page data in and out of that slow cassette interface quite regularly as you're driving around.

> By today’s standards it was also supremely difficult and tedious to find locations and even more difficult to work out how to get there.

If by "today's standards" you mean "ask a computer and it just does it for you," then sure. But this is by no means difficult and involves the most minor tedium.

Want to get from Nashville to Charleston? Grab a US atlas, hold your straight edge to connect the two cities. Find the highways that connect the two close to the straight line. Signage abounds along the way. If you know Charleston, SC is generally east and a bit south, you can likely follow signage mostly without the map. Maybe you need a Nashville-level street map to get to the highway, and maybe one for Charleston to find your hotel. But tedious? Not especially.

Without signs, and needing to measure each leg? Or asking locals along the way? Now that's tedious.

>Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything. Or so said Steve Jobs when he announced iPhone in 2007.

Interestingly, one of Etak co-founders was Nolan Bushnell, and he was Atari co-founder that hired Steve Jobs (or specifically Allan Alcorn) in his only full-time job prior to Apple, pardon the pun.

My first job after undergrad ('88) was creating a Mac-like GUI for Etak for a vehicle tracking company in Los Angeles.

GUIs were still new, DOS was still king, I had experience working on the Mac OS as a beta OS developer, and I'd been working in a 3D graphics research lab (yeah, 3D graphics was research back then), and this company named TeleTrak needed a real time updating map.

So I made the GUI for their mapping application, using my knowledge from writing early Mac GUIs, 2D video games and early 3D graphics. Etak was literally Alienware, in it's data structures and extremely efficient processing. Where I'd been expecting significantly slower performance, I'd made a foundation expecting to use various tricks used to the game industry to make it appear like things were happening while loads occurred and so on. None of that was necessary, as Etak was the fastest aspect of the entire software bundle.

A single 386 PC with a some type of memory expansion so each had an additional 1MB of RAM above the ordinary 640KB would run the software, and the software was capable of real time tracking above 30fps around 20 vehicles. If tracking a single vehicle, the mapping was fluid with at-the-time incredibly sexy real time 30fps rotations of the map as the vehicle turned corners.

While working there, PacTel bought the company. Renamed PacTel TeleTrak, the company suddenly had tours from US and Israeli military brass, so I quit.

Bosch EVA (1983)

"The prototype driver navigation system was unveiled in Hildesheim on June 21, 1983, and it proved groundbreaking: EVA was the first ever experimental autonomous navigation system."

(no map, but display and address to address with route finding)

I have a fantasy that someone reverse-engineers the tape data format and is able to render new maps to it. For the 2 etak systems still operational out there...
Stan Honey other claim to fame (other than being literally the best yacht navigator, probably ever) was founding Sportsvision, the company that created the yellow 1st down line you see when you watch football on tv.
Somewhat off topic. What do big military submarines use these days to navigate?

Do they have nav systems based on topographic data of the sea floor? (I dont know if it is mapped to the degree its possible). Could that be read accurately with only passiv sensors? I think you could read it perfectly with sonar whatever that may have evolved into these days.

I guess they could reach depth where they can poke an extraordinarily long antenna to the surface and talk to GPS systems? (I dont know if such an antenna exists but it would make sense)

> The second key invention was a ‘heading up’, moving map display. This meant that the vehicle remained at the center of the screen and the map moved and turned under the vehicle. What you saw ahead of you in the windshield was what was displayed on the screen. This proved highly intuitive.

Later on they talk about "heads up" map digitizing, did this mean the map rotated as the operator digitized the street? Seems quite unwieldy (and how did the poor PC rotate raster graphics?)

Back in the day the first “computer graphics” class we had at uni was on a tektronix 4010. You would build 3D models and rotate them and display the movement on the monitor. This was when all screens were green text only in a time share system.
Reminds me a little of Sir Clive Sinclair's early products - someone who could see what gadgets the future wanted, but didn't quite have the technology to create them (eg the portable "flat-screen" TV with the side-mounted electron gun).
Fascinating article.

About this:

> Before GPS, navigation systems used a technique called ‘dead reckoning‘. Dead reckoning relied on sensors to determine distance traveled and direction of travel. However, no sensor is perfect. As a result the further you travel the greater the errors build. Pretty quickly you have no idea where you are.

> To solve this problem Etak invented ‘augmented dead reckoning’. This used a process to match the position given by the navigation sensors to a topologically correct electronic map. Whenever the vehicle turned you made the assumption that you’re driving on a road. At that point the location could be ‘snapped’ back to the road and the error from the sensors could be reset. This technique was later adopted by all navigation apps and is still in use today.

Authorities usually intercept unwanted (consumer) drones by blocking the signal between the pilot and the drone; and it's also possible to jam GPS signal.

But a drone that would use some version of "augmented dead reckoning" with a (relatively basic) analysis of features on the ground (roads, rivers, train tracks) would be able to guide itself without external input and would be virtually unstoppable (short of destruction).

Yet they don't seem to exist yet? Is this harder to do than it sounds?

The article claims that the "match roads by turns" technique "was later adopted by all navigation apps". Does anyone know if this is true? My impression was that they rely on GPS position only for positioning, even though modern phone hardware should give really nice gyroscope/accelerometer data.
I had a friend who had one of these in the mid-90's. It was pretty cool (at the time)

I remember installation wasn't trivial. It needed a lot of futzing with the car. I remember the wheel rotation sensors, and they are briefly mentioned in the article.

Smazing that nowadays all this stuff is solid state and in your pocket.

How timely! I was watching a video about the ill fated Vector W8 supercar last night, and wondered about that awesome CRT proto-GPS thing seen in some shots.

Around the same time as Etak was Navteq. Navteq didn't build an in-car navigation system, but did build accurate map and the ability to provide turn by turn directions. Etak could not provide directions and just showed a map. Navteq had kiosks around SF where you could get a printed map with directions. Navteq eventually created the map used by all in-car navigation systems.

It turns out great ideas happen around the same time. Computers became powerful enough that map digitization became possible. The confluence of technologies (all government funded, fyi) like computers, digital maps, and GPS, allows us to have a little square computer in our pockets that can tell us where we are in the world and how to get to where we want to go.

Nolan told me he invented this so it would be easier for him to go sailing.

Etak Navigator Tour and Demo [video] - - July 2022 (1 comment)

Who Needs GPS? The Story of Etak's 1985 Car Navigation System - - Feb 2017 (83 comments)

Here is a video worth watching about a similar project at Siemens in Munich from 1973, 12 years earlier (voice in German, English auto-translated subtitles available):
> The cassette tape in an Etak Navigator was read at about 200cm (80″) per second!

i struggle to imagine how did the tape handle it.

Time to plug my dear father's book 'The Principles of Arab Navigation'.

Quite incredible that so much of the innovation (perfectly recognisable and fundamentally still the same today) came in a single product.

Alright fine 'six tapes to cover the San Francisco bay area' is not so recognisable, and pretty funny, but otherwise!

I'm interested in this kind of thing. How things work and so on, the mechanisms and algorithms behind it. The article is long and I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I upvoted it to read it later. That way it's easy to access.
I'd love to see a modern system that had all the niceties like GPS, music, bluetooth but with an evolved multi-function display (MFD) with keypad entry. Touchscreens in cars are a terrible idea.
Did that interface inspire the PipBoy in the first Fallout game 12 years later?
That the system would only show you your destination, but not how to get there is very appealing to me (as well as its display).

I'd pay for a CRT Waze skin and the option to turn off turn-by-turn navigation.

etak (navigation):

    a word of Micronesian origin for a distinctive cognitive and mnemonic approach to oceanic navigation and orientation involving a notional reference point or "island", called etak, and triangulation based on it.

    ... the use of a relative frame, in which the boat is considered to be at rest, while the etak moves.
And, of course, the Asteroids Atari game sure looks like a version of the original Star Wars game on the PDP-1 from MIT I used to play in the Harvard grad computing center...
What happened to the original units? Are there any left?
What is the style of UI used in that device and why did it have that characteristic angular look? I’ve seen it on other devices of the same vintage.
Does anyone else wish they could configure modern sat nav apps to have a simplified map display/UI somewhat in that style?
Completely ahead of its time. Navigation without GPS is unthinkable today...
Wasn’t there something from Honda with transparent film analog maps?
Wow, this is a fantastic story. It would make a good documentary!
The tape search is really fascinating
This feels remarkably similar to the Humane Pin
Now I know why the cursor from the old asteroids game looks like the position indicator in my car navigation. Great fun fact!

The Atari Team which created the game was located next to the company that built the first navigation device.

Halt and catch fire vibes. Wonderful story
One thing I notice about the 80s is that people were much more willing to pay top dollar for first, very limited versions of products. $4000 in todays money is almost the same as Apple Vision Pro, for a product that has very limited usability.

May be it was easier to market only for rich people who wish to show off then? Since the fall of Vertu no tech companies seem to address specifically this segment. Or may be people just were more optimistic about tech?