Where on Earth am I?



Chinese Philosopher Confucius once said, “And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.” As humans, cognition of where we are is one of the most important aspects of our existence today, possibly just after knowing who we are. This paradigm is often portrayed in the behavior of patients suffering from amnesia (memory loss) desiring to establish their identity first and then wanting to know about where they are. The answer, however, has not been very simple and ever since the Stone Age, humans have always struggled to be able to accurately determine their position on the earth.

Our assimilation into a global village, and travel across the universe, has necessitated the demand for quickly and precisely determining not only our current position, but also tracking others in real time. In 1993, with the completion of the launch of satellites making up the Global Positioning System (GPS), it is now virtually impossible to get lost, if you have a mobile phone with GPRS or a GPS device, that is.

A GPS navigation system works by analyzing radio signals received from GPS satellites. A GPS receiver provides its current location 24x7. GPS systems were traditionally used as a vital defense technology and later used for commercial purposes. In India, GPS technology has been used for advanced public transport systems. Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) was the first to deploy off-line GPS technology on its vehicles on an experimental basis and after realizing the benefits, commissioned a project to implement real time GPS for its fleet to track and provide passengers with real time departure and arrival times of buses.

A similar model is being adopted by private cab operators. Tracking vehicles through GPS not only leads to significant savings by instructing the nearest cab to pick up a customer, but also adds to customer delight due to shortened pick-up times. Companies use GPS for fleet management broadly to track the exact location of the vehicles during the course of the day, the distance traveled and the locations visited and any instances of over speeding. Such systems can also be utilized by companies to validate the claims of their sales personnel.

GPS receivers, once the prerogative of commercial users, are now cheap enough to be affordable to almost anyone — prices have fallen to as little as Rs. 2,500.

As GPS gets integrated with basic mobile phones, its usage in our daily lives will increase as well.

While a mobile phone has become a basic necessity these days, and has moved beyond being just a means of voice communication, a mobile phone with inbuilt GPS capabilities can bring unlimited possibilities.

Navigation

Google Maps helping you find your way

GPS navigation systems provide useful information about an individual or a vehicle’s current position, regardless of the vehicle travelling on road, water or air. Modern day mobile phones with GPS antennas can work as navigation systems and run mapping software that can track the current position of the vehicle and provide turn-by turn driving instructions as well. Google Maps, a mapping software that has gained popularity globally, can be used to determine the current position on a map. Google Maps is a simple, yet powerful application, which can work on most mobile phones and provide precise location (if the phone has an internal or external GPS antenna) or approximate location — if the phone does not have a GPS antenna. Google Maps also has capability to provide traffic density inforlocation information available to them. One of the most fascinating applications shares this information with a network of trusted friends. This is known as Buddy Tracking System. A number of systems are available that help you share their location information in real time with their friends. The possibilities multiply manifold if the location information can be shared through a number of different media platforms. Some of the advanced applications can integrate one’s location information on a phone, web and other platforms. Therefore, a user may choose to share his location information with all or some of his friends that he or she is connected to on social networking sites such as Orkut, Facebook or LinkedIn. One such application is Loopt (www.loopt. com), which enables buddy tracking using a GPS-enabled mobile phone and can publish this information across a range of platforms. Loopt is a great buddy - tracking system, but it is linked to the telecom operator, which implies that its usage is limited to only those users whose telecom service provider provides this service. Unfortunately, this service is not available with any telecom service provider in India. Another interesting application is Whrrl (www.whrrl.com), which provides buddy tracking service, and in addition, offers event capture. Essentially, users of Whirrl can record their comments / feedback about the place (restaurant, club, etc) they visit, and these comments will be visible to their mation (which can help choose an optimal route) and routing information (turn-by-turn driving/walking directions). Unfortunately, the traffic information feed and routing information is not available for India, yet.

There are a number of other alternative systems, which provide navigation and routing information. Airtel provides an application (Wayfinder) for GPS-enabled Blackberry users (Blackberry 8800, 8310, Bold, etc.), which offers voice-enabled turn-by-turn routing information. The maps for this application have been provided by MapMyIndia, which has fairly precise maps and routing information for may Indian cities. With this application on a Blackberry handheld, one can get around most places in India quite easily. The software also provides route summary, which includes total distance from start point to destination, distance left, time taken, etc. The system can also predict the expected arrival time with reasonable accuracy. GPS-enabled Nokia phone users can also use a similar application for navigation. The other similar systems are Nav4All, TeleNav, etc.

TeleNav giving you precise directions

Geo tagging


Geo tagging is another interesting application, which extends the capability of a camera or mobile phone, that has inbuilt GPS. Standard digital cameras have the capability to tag pictures with basic information such as date, time and camera settings. A GPS-enabled camera (or camera phone) can add location information as an additional tag to each picture taken. This tag can describe the exact location of the picture on our planet. This functionality helps users to keep track of the places they have visited, without having to manually enter such information.

Anti-theft devices

Today, several security systems are designed by embedding GPS units in vehicles. These units when integrated with automobile security systems can notify the vehicle owner by phone or email if the vehicle security alarms are triggered, and help in identifying the exact location of the vehicle.
Sports

Runners, cyclists and other health conscious individuals can use GPS-enabled mobile phones to monitor their speed and distance covered. The famous French cycling event Tour de France has riders equipped with GPS devices that transmit their speed and location at all times. GPS systems are also used to capture player work rates and training loads to monitor and prescribe exercise and recovery routines. Modern day golf courses also install GPS units on golf carts, and these are being used to monitor among other things, the distance a ball has been hit and the distance to the green.

Recreational activities

Trekkers and hikers use GPS-enabled mobile phones to create a track log of the hike. GPS has also given rise to new games such as Geocache, which combine the physical and virtual worlds. The game, played across the globe by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices involves locating and hiding containers called geocaches (water proof containers containing a logbook, toys and trinkets of low value) outdoors and sharing experiences online with the player community. GPS is also finding its place in fishing activities. Fishing in large water bodies makes it difficult to keep a track of the location where success was met. GPS devices help by marking such locations, allowing you to return to them when required.

What lies ahead

The convergence of GPS with mobile phones brings additional opportunities for people to use this data to share their location information with their friends. The location-based information can also be published in the individual’s profile on social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. The same application can also be used by parents to track their kids on a real-time basis.

The GPS system is a testimonial of how man’s motivations and desires to probe his own curiosities have helped him create a technological marvel. GPS systems have triggered technological fantasies around the globe and applications of this technology appear to be virtually unlimited. India is slowly beginning to embrace this technology to answer some of the many challenges facing a burgeoning population and we shall soon begin to see the penetration rise.

Convergence of GPS and mobile phones — going beyond navigation

The initial usage of a GPS-enabled mobile phone was to simply track one’s location on a mapping application like Google Maps. Soon after, came the navigation systems, which helped users get from one point to another by assisting them with turn-by-turn driving directions. Mobile navigation systems are good, but are limited in their capabilities. Also, the usage of these applications is quite limited. Since navigation systems are used only when one travels to unknown places, initial research indicates that a typical user does not use these systems more than once in two weeks. Such low usage may not justify installing a rather heavy application just for the purpose of navigation.

The next set of applications for GPS-enabled mobile phones relies on the fact that people would like to do much more with the real-time 50 DIGIT JANUARY 2009 www.thinkdigit.com Digital Tools l Feature A GPS navigation system works by analyzing radio signals received from GPS satellites. A GPS receiver provides its current location 24x7. GPS systems were traditionally used as a vital defense technology and later used for commercial purposes. In India, GPS technology has been used for advanced public transport systems. Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) was the first to deploy off-line GPS technology on its vehicles on an experimental basis and after realizing the benefits, commissioned a project to implement real time GPS for its fleet to track and provide passengers with real time departure and arrival times of buses. A similar model is being adopted by private cab operators. Tracking vehicles through GPS not only leads to significant savings by instructing the nearest cab to pick up a customer, but also adds to customer delight due to shortened pick-up times. Companies use GPS for fleet management broadly to track the exact location of the vehicles during the course of the day, the distance traveled and the locations visited and any instances of over speeding. Such systems can also be utilized by companies to validate the claims of their sales personnel. GPS receivers, once the prerogative of commercial users, are now cheap enough to be affordable to almost anyone — prices have fallen to as little as Rs. 2,500. As GPS gets integrated with basic mobile phones, its usage in our daily lives will increase as well. While a mobile phone has become a basic necessity these days, and has moved beyond being just a means of voice communication, a mobile phone with inbuilt GPS capabilities can bring unlimited possibilities. Navigation GPS navigation systems provide useful information about an individual or a vehicle’s current position, regardless of the vehicle travelling on road, water or air. Modern day mobile phones with GPS antennas can work as navigation systems and run mapping software that can track the current position of the vehicle and provide turn-by turn driving instructions as well. Google Maps, a mapping software that has gained popularity globally, can be used to determine the current position on a map. Google Maps is a simple, yet powerful application, which can work on most mobile phones and provide precise location (if the phone has an internal or external GPS antenna) or approximate location — if the phone does not have a GPS antenna. Google Maps also has capability to provide traffic density inforlocation information available to them. One of the most fascinating applications shares this information with a network of trusted friends. This is known as Buddy Tracking System. A number of systems are available that help you share their location information in real time with their friends. The possibilities multiply manifold if the location information can be shared through a number of different media platforms. Some of the advanced applications can integrate one’s location information on a phone, web and other platforms. Therefore, a user may choose to share his location information with all or some of his friends that he or she is connected to on social networking sites such as Orkut, Facebook or LinkedIn.

Loopt can tell your friends where you are at any given time

One such application is Loopt (www.loopt. com), which enables buddy tracking using a GPS-enabled mobile phone and can publish this information across a range of platforms. Loopt is a great buddy - tracking system, but it is linked to the telecom operator, which implies that its usage is limited to only those users whose telecom service provider provides this service. Unfortunately, this service is not available with any telecom service provider in India.

Whrrl can tell your buddies about that wonderful restaurant you visited last night

Another interesting application is Whrrl (www.whrrl.com), which provides buddy tracking service, and in addition, offers event capture. Essentially, users of Whirrl can record their comments / feedback about the place (restaurant, club, etc) they visit, and these comments will be visible to their friends. This allows friends in the network to share information easily. Whrrl also integrates with Twitter, a social networking platform for people to communicate with their friends. One key limitation of Whirrl is that it works only on GPS-enabled mobile phones.

Whereabouts is a similar application, which was primarily targeted at family members who need to track each other. Worrying parents can track the location of their kids on a real-time basis. Whereabouts also provides integration with Facebook, making it an extended social networking system.

Micro BTS (www.microtechnologies.net) is a buddy tracking system offered by Micro Technologies in India. The system is fairly simple to use, but is not free.

An upcoming system, known as Trackut (www.trackut.com) takes these applications to newer dimensions. Trackut offers all the options of a buddy-tracking system not only on GPS-enabled mobile phones, but it works on non-GPS phones also. Moreover, Trackut is an operator-independent service, which makes it versatile, and it can be used virtually anywhere in the world. Fundamentally, Trackut is a location- based information streaming system, which can help users create location-oriented groups and share information with friends.

In addition to offering basic buddy tracking service, Trackut provides multi-channel location- based streaming. A Trackut user can record any event, describe it, tag it and share it with friends. The event capture can be real-time, using the phone to record and share it with the network. The captured story could be about a restaurant you liked, a party where you had fun, or could be temporal such as a traffic jam you are stuck in. Trackut manages these and streams them to the right audience when they are near the locations where these events occurred.

Such an application opens up possibilities to do many things on a convergent platform. When a movie feed is converged with such application, you can drive into any area and find out which one of the closest cinema hall is running a movie of your choice. An alumni group may choose to join the network and the members can share their office and home locations with peers.

The possibilities are endless. However, Trackut is in evolution process and the interface needs some upgrade. It’s a promising application and should mature soon.

got-2 Task Management

An application of special interest is got-2 Task Management (www.gwhizmobile.com). This application takes simple electronic task lists to the next level. A traditional task list uses date and time as an event to trigger an alert, whereas got-2 Task Management adds a new dimension (location) to trigger an alert. The way it works is that whenever you create a task, in addition to entering the due date/time, you also specify the location, where the task can be performed. For example, if you add a task for dry-cleaning, you also provide the address for the dry-cleaner. Whenever, you drive into the same areas as the dry-cleaner, an alert for this task will come up on your phone screen. The best part is, got-2 Task Management integrates with Microsoft Outlook and Google Calendar, making it simple to synchronize with your usual task list.

While these platforms open up new possibilities of information exchange, they also bring about significant risks and challenges. For example, the buddy tracking systems are considered a serious privacy invader, limiting its use to close family members only. Although most applications allow you to enable or disable location sharing, it can be cumbersome to manage it. Another drawback is that these systems eat a lot of battery power since they would require the GPS antenna to remain switched on whenever you use them. The battery consumption increases if you are inside a building or around tall buildings. The third big disadvantage is the cost of data transfer. Since all these systems use GPRS or an equivalent method to communicate, there is a significant flow of data from the mobile phone. If one is not on an unlimited data plan, these systems can punch a big hole in your pocket.

All said and done, these are great tools and can make your phone do multiple things. The advice is to use them cautiously, keep a charger handy and switch to an unlimited data plan before you start using them!




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