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Travel Déjà Vu

The Phenomenon Of Travel Déjà Vu

For those who have spent a certain amount of time on the road (and remember that just a year ago, niceties such as travel were considered wearying and a normal part of the work day), there’s a specific type of haziness that sets in at a certain point. For me, this bleary delirium usually hits around hour 15 to 20 of travel. The sterile sameness to airport corridors blurs one into the next in an endless hallway to nowhere. Stores start to repeat, similar to glitches in the Matrix (there’s a row of luxury stores that I think I’ve seen in a precise pattern from Vegas to Venice). Hotel rooms, especially business oriented ones, vary only by the view out the window. And people begin to resemble work acquaintances from decades past, or grade school teachers, or even the person you sat next to three flights back. Blinking as you emerge from the recesses of the airport terminal into the brightness of the world beyond, the brain makes random connections to places past and present as it tries to center itself in a new reality.

This phenomenon is a strange sort of travel disassociation of place with geography — where the mind transplants elements of the strange newness into the familiar. Scientists have studied déjà vu by using virtual reality to map one place onto another in the Sims video game, using the same layout for a rose garden and junk yard. “These experiments have led scientists to suspect that déjà vu is a memory phenomenon,” wrote Sabrina Stierwalt in Scientific American. “We encounter a situation that is similar to an actual memory but we can’t fully recall that memory. So our brain recognizes the similarities between our current experience and one in the past. We’re left with a feeling of familiarity that we can’t quite place.”

Small wonder, then, that games such as City Guesser feel so maddeningly familiar. The game presents a walk down a city street (you can narrow your options from Worldwide to USA, Europe, Canada, Japan, England, etc.). Those who relish a challenge can be sent to any location around the world (with either a fixed location or time limit). Devoid of context, one has to guess the location by dropping a pin on a map, which then tells you how far from the real place you wandered in your answer.

The game is far from easy, even in your home country. Consider how you navigate a new neighborhood — it is very rarely with a straight on, direct path and fast walking pace. At home, we’re distracted by phones, passerby, weather and our own thoughts. In the game, our attention is caught by interesting looking side streets, store windows and other minutiae.

City Guesser bears more than a passing resemblance to the Google Maps street view based GeoGuessr, which has a similar concept, but requires an account to play (GeoGuessr also leans hard into the community notion by including pro leagues and the ability for players to make their own maps).

Created by programmer Paul McBurney Jr., the game draws from user-submitted content on YouTube. “One of the most challenging feats in development was acquiring footage for the game,” McBurney Jr. told The Burn-In. “City Guesser utilizes the embedded player feature on YouTube to display content. People will post footage of themselves walking around different cities. After posting, the original creators will decide whether or not they want to allow their video to be embedded by people.”

According to Palo Alto Online, McBurney Jr. is a local 14 year old student at Gunn High School, who began working on the game in his spare time as a way to bring people together. “One major goal in the creation of City Guesser was to help others see places they’ve never been before,” McBurney Jr. told The Burn-In. “Once you play a few rounds, you’ll notice that all humans are the same wherever you go.”


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