Innovation, Travel

Location matters

09.26.06 | Comment?

Global positioning systems have really come a long way in terms of what’s available commercially and who can get benefit from the technology. For those of you who are not familiar with GPS, the system is simple in concept though difficult to implement in practice. It works like this: a constellation of (at least) 24 satellites is maintained by the US Goverment (primarily for military applications.) Each satellite has a precise known orbit as well as a highly accurate clock. Many times a second, each satellite transmits a message that consists of the time stamp and the satellite’s identity. Receivers on the ground, gather as many signals as possible (a minimum of 3 signals are required to get basic information) and use triangulation to determine position on a grid that has been superimposed over the globe i.e. N37.324 W122.309 is a position. The more digits after the decimal place, the more accurate the position calculation. Commercial receivers now typically are capable of receiving 12 signals, which allows for reasonable accuracy of +/- 2 meters. Some applications for the military and science, are now capable of accuracy to +/- 1 centimeter.

Now, all that is great. And geeks really like to know how stuff works. But what about people who simply want to know what street they’re on in an unfamiliar town? That’s the good news. GPS receiver manufacturers have finally made the leap from geeks who care about the X, Y coordinates to end-users who want to know how to get to location name X, how long it will take, what interesting things are available along the way, and alternate routes should something go wrong.

Garmin StreetPilot 2720

Having spent the last 2 weeks traveling extensively around the US with an accurate GPS receiver, I can categorically state I would NEVER EVER take a trip of over 2 hours duration in a car again without GPS. It’s a marvelous convenience to be able to know with certainty one’s situation. That being said, there are still some improvements to be made to the units. The one I travelled with is the Garmin StreetPilot 2720, an end-user set with 2 meter accuracy, the ability to receive FM band traffic reports, millions of points of interest, etc. The unit is 99% accurate in my experience. But, one still needs to maintain a strong sense of where one is going, that 1% can be a real bummer if you don’t ignore the instructions at the right time. Example: early Sunday morning I pulled off I15 from Vegas to top off the gas tank and scrub the windshield. The GPS instructed me not to get back on I15 S, it wanted me to go back north toward Vegas to a secondary route. Had I simply followed directions, it would have created hours more driving. The good news is, it very rarely does this. The bad news is, it does make these errors meaning complete trust in the unit is foolhardy.

One other thing I’ll single Garmin out for is promising Mac compatible software and then not delivering it. That’s frustrating to a consumer, particularly frustrating when no specific delivery time for the software can be given. I take that to mean the work is not under way as every development project has an end date. I’d like to see some battery capablity in this unit, it’s a vehicle unit, but sometimes the plug wiggles out and then a restart takes some time. This is annoying when precise instructions are required and the unit goes dead for lack of power. Also, I’d ditch (or vastly improve) the audio direction instructions, I found that I put the unit in mute mode 95% of the time.

All this being said, the unit works well and was a great aid during my travels.

Given the fact that GPS is now becoming user-friendly, that GPS receivers are showing up in mobile phones, vehicles, and in hand-held units, a whole raft of interesting location-based services are now possible. A few that occurred to me during my travels are:

  • From the old days of citizen’s band radio (CBs) “bear in the grass” service. A user driven location aid for law enforcement’s little speed traps.
  • Where’s the cheap X service? Gas? Food? Lodging? If we know these things exist, a user driven location aid for what their experience with the vendor was and what was paid for the service.
  • Road condition reporting service. As users travel through areas reporting on traffic density, road conditions, construction, etc.
  • Vehicle SOS, kind of OnStar on the cheap. A small hand held GPS unit with radio/mobile phone transmission that a user can simply activate when necessary that dispatches help, a tow truck or emergency responders to the location reported by the unit.
  • Point of interest nomination. As users pass through locations the ability to nominate and rate them in real time to the rest of the user community.

There are some interesting business opportunities to be had in this space.

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