37° 48.325’ N, 122° 24.343’ W, +30 meters altitude. That’s the location of my desk in Technology Review’s San Francisco office. Just enter the coordinates into your cell phone, and it’ll take you right to me.
Unless, of course, you don’t have access to your phone’s built-in navigation features. Many new phones use the Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine their coordinates, which can then be transmitted to 911 operators in an emergency. But Sprint and Verizon Wireless, which both sell handsets with built-in GPS chips, have not yet given outside software developers access to this same location information.
So GPS navigation tools and related location technologies that ought to be standard features in today’s phones remain far-off dreams for most cell-phone owners. Of all the major carriers in North America, only Nextel offers phones with user-accessible GPS functions.
Over time, that will change. The cell phone is the one computing and communications device that consumers carry everywhere they go, and as soon as enough people see their Nextel-toting neighbors enjoying GPS navigation and other location-driven services, cellular carriers and phone manufacturers will bow to consumer demand.
Imagine leaving your car at home and networking with other GPS-phone users to form impromptu car pools, or receiving Web pages on your phone about Pickett’s ill-fated charge as you amble up Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. Geo-aware devices that trigger location-specific services will become as natural as the very idea of wirelessness, and the Web itself will cease to be a placeless cyberspace and will be pinned at millions of points to the physical world we inhabit.
Meanwhile, though, I wanted to get a sense of what Nextel customers can do with the technology today. So I borrowed a couple of GPS-enabled Nextel phones and hit the streets of San Francisco to see how well they could handle everyday navigation tasks. For comparison, I also carried a dedicated GPS receiver I’d purchased a few weeks earlier.
A few words about the receiver. Having enjoyed the GPS navigation units in cars I’d rented in Canada and Germany, and having read with interest about the emerging sport of geocaching, I’d been pining for my own GPS unit for some time. I headed over to the local REI and splurged on a Garmin GPSmap 60C.
It’s the company’s flagship handheld unit, distinguished by a large color display that’s remarkably bright even when the backlight is off. After spending a few hours with the instruction manual, I felt ready to strike out on my first geocaching expedition. Geocaching is one of those outdoor sports that, like hang gliding, jet skiing, and rappelling, exist only because some tinkerer invented the right thingamajig. (For GPS, of course, we’re indebted to the U.S. Navy and Air Force, who wanted a way to get ICBMs to their precise targets.)
Geocachers hide camouflaged caches – typically, small ammo boxes or Tupperware containers holding logbooks and a few trinkets for visitors to take and replace – then publish their latitudes and longitudes on the Internet. Geocache hunters download these locations, called waypoints, to their GPS units and navigate to the caches using only the units’ built-in compasses, maps, and range indicators.
Geocaching.com, the sport’s leading website, lists more than 185,000 cache locations worldwide. I downloaded a dozen in San Francisco and neighboring Marin County and spent two successive Sundays striding about holding the Garmin unit out in front of me like a high-tech divining rod. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for almost eight years, the searches took me down streets and trails I’d never traveled before.
The 60C showed me highly detailed maps, laid down virtual “bread crumbs” that I used later to reconstruct my journeys on my home PC, and was sufficiently sensitive to GPS signals to guide me to within about three meters of a given waypoint. From there, it was up to me to find the caches. In Sausalito, I found one squeezed into a film canister that was glued to the underside of a piece of driftwood. On Russian Hill in San Francisco, I spent half an hour scrounging for a cache that turned out to be hidden in plain sight under a very convincing plastic rock.