|Location Reigns Supreme With Future PCs
MIT conference looks at the future of location-based computing.
Tom Spring, PC World
Friday, October 01, 2004
"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"
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
"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.