GPS: From Tragedy to Frivolity

spac_gps_navstar_iia_iir_iif_constellation_lgGlobal Positioning System (GPS for short) is a satellite-based way to locate yourself on the face of the earth.

Back in the early nineties I used a GPS unit for some mining exploration field work I was performing as a summer student.

It was massive, heavy, and highly inaccurate. We carried it around the bush like a crown jewel in an awkward plastic Pelican case. After all, it had cost the company more than a car. 

We didn’t need that coming out of our pay.

So it still amazes me that both my Blackberry Curve and my iPhone pack GPS capabilities that can pinpoint my location to within a few feet.

Like many technologies we enjoy today, GPS was designed by the US military.

You might think, then, that GPS’ development was driven by a mindset of fear and animosity.

In fact, GPS has evolved more as a technology of public safety.

In 1983, the civilian Korean Airlines flight KAL007 strayed into Soviet airspace as a result of a navigational error.

 The Soviet government, however, considered this passage a deliberate and  provocative test of its military response capabilities.

So they shot the plane down, killing all 269 people on board.

At this time, GPS was still little more than a concept.

Still, to try and prevent future disasters such as KAL007, US President Ronald Reagan promised to make it available as an operational system to civilians.

That happened ten years later, in April 1995, when testing on a network of 24 satellites was finally completed. 

(There are now about 31 up there.)

GPS is still an American system managed by its air force. Every other major government in the world, including China, the European Union, and Russia, have plans for similar systems.

However, only GPS is full operational.

GPS, as a consumer product, is well known as a personal navigation system.

GPS can track an individual’s whereabouts and offer guidance on arriving at a specific destination.

When coupled with a software mapping system, it can offer real-time, turn-by-turn directions.

Many cars now have GPS capabilities that promise to replace paper maps.

So, in a sense, GPS is a system developed to help protect the male ego. 

(There’s that great line from Cars, when the lost van says to his wife: “I don’t need a map! I have the GPS. Never need a map again, thank you.”)

My Blackberry has this capability built-in.

The last time we were in Vancouver, I let my 4-year-old son navigate us from one side of the city to the other with it.

Other than a brief detour to a Dairy Queen, he got us to our destination without incident.

I was pretty excited about this. But the glow wore off quickly when I realized I didn’t really need turn-by-turn directions in a city like Whitehorse.

It seems that RIM has unfortunately limited the Blackberry’s GPS capabilities to its own navigational software.

My Curve doesn’t even automatically “geotag” photos with the location at which they are taken. (Although, I could kind of hack the device to make this happen.)

So it’s very exciting that Apple has opened up the iPhone’s GPS capabilities to any developer writing software for the platform.

Now some really interesting GPS-based software is starting to appear.

I’ve tried Nearby, a social network application that displays a map of your whereabouts in relationship to your friends’.

It also allows you to mark locations on a map that can be shared with others.

Another social application, Twinkle, combines GPS with the geek social network Twitter.

This is sort of silly, though, since I don’t think people who Twitter every really engage with one another in real life. So location in Twitter is somewhat superfluous.

Another cool, if frivolous, application is Graffitio. As its name suggests, you can virtually graffiti any GPS-based location on earth.

Another iPhone user who happens upon that spot will be able to view what you’ve left behind.

Interesting uses for this, obviously, are fun things like scavenger hunts.

Quite possibly the best use of GPS on the iPhone, however, is urbanspoon.

Like a Magic 8-Ball, you can shake your iPhone and it will randomly find you a nearby restaurant.

This is accomplished by comparing your GPS location to the database of eateries at urbanspoon.com.

If you have a craving or a budget, you can specify a set of parameters such as cuisine and price, to narrow the results.

Once you choose a place to go, urbanspoon generates a map-based set of directions to get you there.

Current implementations of GPS on the iPhone are cool, and represent the dawning of the age of Relationship Technology.

But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. 

Once developers get past the fun aspect of location, they’ll slowly start to integrate the experience of GPS into the more utilitarian needs of a user’s mobile computing experience as it relates to all the data they need to engage with.

Then, like a 5-pound GPS unit in a Pelican case, we’ll all be able to leave our desktop computers behind to collect dust.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 8, 2008.