"Location, location, location" may be the mantra for real estate tycoons. But according to a panel of experts on location-based services, the same mantra holds true for the future of cell phones and mobile computers.
Panelists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during a recent Emerging Technologies Conference described a future where nothing ever gets lost and your SUV always knows the coordinates of the gas station with the cheapest prices on super unleaded.
Today most computers lack the ability to interact with the surrounding environment. But this is changing. All new cell phones sold in the United States must carry geographical positioning technology accurate to about 300 feet. Companies at the panel called "The Revolution in Location Aware Computing" hope to bring location accuracy down to within three inches and promise to deliver everything from traffic reports to find-a-date services to precise information on your child's whereabouts.
"Many of these applications exist today," Hari Balakrishnan, an MIT computer scientist, told attendees. "But there are real obstacles hindering widespread adoption."
Location-based services typically use location information derived from cellular phone networks, which is not very precise. Other services use GPS (global positioning satellite) information, which is more precise, but its weak signals make location detection unworkable inside buildings, cities, and even in a dense forest.
Going Beyond the GPS Barrier
Balakrishnan is part of the MIT development team that works on an indoor location system called Cricket that can accurately locate an object to within an inch of its location. Cricket relies on sensors placed throughout a building to track objects with electronic beacons. Cricket systems today are used inside hospitals for tracking equipment and patients. In the future, Cricket could help robots smoothly navigate a building without ever bumping into a wall.
For cities where tall buildings can mute GPS signals, a firm called Rosum uses broadcast television signals and GPS technology to locate people on city streets or deep inside buildings. "GPS just doesn't work effectively inside," said panelist Matthew Rabinowitz, founder of Rosum.
Rosum's so-called TV-GPS technology works by exploiting the television synchronization signals broadcast by VHF and UHF frequencies. This complicated process takes advantage of broadcast signals' ability to penetrate deep inside buildings and can pinpoint TV-GPS-enabled devices with accuracy up to 65 feet.
Location Privacy Barrier
Obstacles to the proliferation of location-aware computers are as much social as they are technological, said Mark Jacobstein, president of Digital Chocolate, a developer of software for mobile phones.
"There are no killer applications that are driving this technology today," Jacobstein said. He explained that, aside from GPS navigational systems for cars and asset tracking, there are no "must-have" location-aware services.
Digital Chocolate works primarily with cell phone manufacturers who make mobile games for cell phones. But the company says its first location-aware software app, called StarGazer, will be released soon. StarGazer, a mobile application that knows geographically where your phone is, also can display an image of the night sky on a cell phone's display, which could help wannabe astronomers identify constellations and planets.
Once a critical mass of people have cell phones equipped with more precise location information, Jacobstein said, he hopes to bring a find-a-friend and a find-a-date application to cell phones so you can tell where your friends or lonely singles are on a Saturday night.
"People are paranoid that computers that know where you are can turn against you," Rabinowitz said. Social obstacles to location-aware computers mainly surround privacy issues where people are concerned their movements will be tracked by Big Brother. It also is possible that location services they could be used by stalkers and child abductors as well as by those wanting to legitimately locate a spouse or a child.
Panelists unanimously dismissed privacy concerns, citing the fact that criminals will stalk and abduct with or without GPS technology. "The benefits of being able to pinpoint things precisely easily outweigh the negatives," Jacobstein said. The speakers also agreed that devices with tracking technology should have an on/off switch to disable tracking.
Paranoia Equals Profits
For one panelist, Matthew Gray, founder of Newbury Networks, paranoia translates into location awareness profits. The company, which specializes in Wi-Fi network security for businesses, can locate and block network access by unauthorized computers. Gray told the audience how he was able to access a local coffeehouse's free Wi-Fi network from his office. "I don't want our employees accidentally using the coffeehouse's network or vice versa," Gray said. Gray argued that asset tracking of things like cargo containers and the LoJack Stolen Vehicle Recovery System are already a multimillion dollar industry. "Security is the killer application," he said.
For most consumers, however, location-based services are years away from becoming a reality, the panelists agreed. The technology is too nascent and expensive for most consumers. At the moment, panelists say, those people are still looking for the right thing, the right time, and the right place.