Fun with GPS Route Art and a Space Invader

by John Grabowski on October 21, 2015

I first became interested in attempting “GPS Route Art” or “GPS Doodles” last year when I planned and rode/wrote a giant 121-mile birthday greeting for my wife.  What is GPS route art? GPS route art uses a GPS recording of an activity (i.e. running, cycling, hiking) to create large-scale artwork, and it’s been around for longer than you may think:

  • In June 2002, Wired Magazine featured this article  about Jeremy Wood and Hugh Pryor creating GPS art all over England.
  • In 2013, MapMyFitness held their first-ever Route Art contest. You can see the winners here
  • More recently, Stephen Lund, a cyclist in Victoria, British Columbia has emerged as a skilled and prolific GPS artist whose growing portfolio is on display (and for sale!) at his website.

How to create a GPS Route Art course

Webmaster's Note: click on any of the images for a larger version

Ever since creating my wife’s giant “birthday card,” I’ve been wanting to do another GPS doodle - and since so many of our Indiana roads form grids (and since I’m a child of the 70’s & ‘80s), I decided to do the geek nostalgia thing and create the signature Space Invaders character.

Here’s how I did it (you can use this as a handy how-to guide for creating your own GPS art):

1. First, I found a picture of the Space Invader character that I wanted to use. Since it is monochromatic and blocky, it would be perfectly suited for GPS art created on a grid of Indiana farm fields. Another technique for designing a GPS art ride is to try and recognize pictures or patterns in maps and use those.

2. I knew from past experience that the route I created would have to fulfill some basic requirements to work. These are very important if you're planning your own GPS art course:

  • The route/drawing has to be a continuous line, even it that means that segments of the route have to double back on themselves.

  • The route has to be able to be completed/recorded in a single ride

  • The GPS used to record the ride has to have sufficient battery life to record the entire ride.

  • There must be crystal clear instructions as to minimize the likelihood of the rider making any mistakes - because any single mistake will ruin the drawing, forcing the rider to start over from the beginning (NOT fun on a long ride).

3. I used the internet to browse road maps around Fort Wayne. Using the 1 square mile grids that are common in our area, my Space Invader was going to require a nice clean grid of 8 miles by 12 miles, which is harder to find than you may think. In fact, I didn’t find any suitable space close to Fort Wayne - I had to go almost 90 miles south.

4. Luckily, there was a small town (Windfall) near one corner of the route, and another, larger town (Elwood) not too far from the halfway point. Using Google Earth view, I saw that Windfall had both somewhere to park and somewhere to make a pre-ride pit stop. Equally as important, Elwood had a few places where I’d be able to refuel and refill water bottles along the way.

5. There are numerous free websites for creating routes. For my wife’s birthday message route, I used RideWithGPS.com, but this time around, I created my route on Strava (all you have to do is login to Strava, go to “My Routes” and select “Create New Route.”) Creating the route is easy - you simply choose a starting point, then set waypoints along the way, and Strava follows roads to create the route.

6. Segment by segment, I drew the Space Invader true to form except for an extra 1-mile segment that acted as a connector from the side of its head to each of its eyes (to facilitate drawing its eyes). According to Strava, the route was just over 78 miles long and, on a whim,  I looked up information on the original Space Invaders arcade game  and was surprised and thrilled to find out that it was first released in - you guessed it - 1978! What an awesome coincidence.

7. Since I have a Garmin Edge 810, I used Strava to export a .gpx file, which I loaded onto my Garmin as a Course. From past experience, I knew to not rely exclusively on my Garmin’s turn-by-turn guidance, so I printed a Cue Sheet. I knew that the course diagram and the cue sheet steps would come in handy along the ride.

Time to ride - let's make a Space Invader!

I checked my calendar and then the weather, and chose a day for the ride. I invited a few friends from work, and one of them accepted the challenge to join me on my retro-geek cycling quest. On the day of the ride, we drove down to Windfall, made a quick stop at a convenience store, parked the car, got our gear and our bikes, and rode 1 mile to the starting point. We double-checked which direction the route went at the beginning, powered up our GPSs, and started riding.

The weather, though brisk, was perfect - clear and sunny, windy but not too windy. The entire route was extremely flat, and it actually encircled the Wildcat 1 wind farm  (imagine that - a wind farm near Windfall!). Large windmill blade shadows swept across our paths as we rode past corn fields - some already harvested, others full of corn hanging heavy on dry brown stalks (which thankfully served us well as wind breaks). I was very surprised to find that all of the roads were paved, and while we did endure some rough roads and a bit more chip and seal than we’d have liked, most of the roads were excellent. Quite a few dogs “said hi” to us as we passed by their houses, and most drivers were friendly, waving at us as they went by. We even drafted off of a farm tractor pulling a trailer for a while.

As we rode, we mentally “checked off” what we’d drawn, saying things like, “Ok, when we get to this next turn, that finishes its right antenna,” or “Now we’re headed up to its left armpit,” which was fun. My friend had never ridden 78 miles before, so we maintained a very modest pace throughout the ride. When my Garmin did get confused (which only happened a couple of times) we simply used the cue sheet to double-check our course. We stopped and had lunch in Elwood (there were fresh sub sandwiches and chicken fingers and fries available at a convenience store right on the route), and eventually finished up the ride later that afternoon.

I have to admit that we felt quite triumphant after saving the workout and seeing our 8-mile x 12-mile Space Invader smiling up at us from our devices. If you want to ride the Space Invader ’78 ride yourself, the course is available on Strava here.