Tag Archives: Global Positioning System

How Technology Shrinks and Amplifies Distance

Two pieces in the NYT/IHT that weren’t about technology, but kind of are, illustrate how technology can shrink distance but also grow it.

First off a piece by Geoff D. Porteran analyst in the Middle East and Africa division of the Eurasia Group, explores how African would-be immigrants to Europe are now making their way to Europe via the Canary Islands, some 50 miles off the coast of Mauritania. Until technology came along, this was a very risky business: The Atlantic is big, and the Canaries are small, making it hard for sailors in small fishing boats to find them.

Still, chasing fish stocks is different from finding a small cluster of islands in the middle of the ocean. At least it was until battery-powered, handheld GPS units became widely available.

Over the past several years, GPS technology has become smaller, more user-friendly and – most importantly – cheaper. A simple unit costs little more than $100. And because GPS uses satellites, they work as well on Fifth Avenue as they do 50 miles off the coast of Mauritania.

With the new oceangoing canoes outfitted with handheld GPS units, the Canaries were no longer so far away nor so hard to find for the Africans.

Cheap GPS has shrunk the distance between Africa and Europe, perhaps not for the better if boats are still getting lost, and the illegal immigrants are simply caught and turned back. Perhaps it merely creates more business for snakeheads. But there’s no denying that GPS has become a tool of the masses, even in the developing world, and that that carries with it huge implications for the size of the world and the shrinking of distance.

But sometimes technology has the opposite effect. Another IHT piece, by author and diplomat Judith M. Heimann, explores how U.S. airmen shot down over Borneo in 1945 quickly learned the local Dayak language and helped turn the local people into a formidable guerrilla force. Ms. Heimann’s point is that those individual airmen who were isolated from their comrades learned Dayak faster, and stands in contrast to the soldier of today in Iraq or Afghanistan:

And now, as I read the newspapers, I cannot help noticing how in today’s unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers’ and leaders’ current lack of success in co-opting the local people contrasts with what was achieved by a small number of American airmen 60-odd years ago.

How come this difference? And what can we learn from it?

The difference may well be directly related to the number of soldiers involved. The airman who was the quickest to learn the local language and to become a competent survivor, was the one who was alone in a Dayak village for months before meeting up with any of the other Americans.

The slowest to become capable of helping themselves and being part of an effective anti-Japanese unit were those in the biggest group – four American flyers.

Think about it. When do you learn a new language most easily? When you have no choice.

Compare this with the gizmos every soldier today carries — communications devices, sustenance, translation gadgets, night vision goggles — and you realize that while such devices may sometimes save him, they also isolate him from the sort of contact with local people and culture that turned a disastrous flight over Borneo into a successful grassroots campaign against the Japanese. Here technology merely creates a gulf, a sort of shield where the soldier remains dependent on his devices and reduces the chances of building the kind of bonds those stranded airmen did with the headhunters of Borneo.

‘Guests’ can succeed where occupiers fail – International Herald Tribune

Foleo, Foleo, Where Art Thou?


Caption competition:

“Is this a dagger I see before me?”

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”

Now you see it, now you don’t

Photo from BusinessWire

It has the grim predictability of a company that doesn’t seem sure of what it’s doing, and what people want. Ever since Ed Colligan unveiled the Foleo — a Linux-based sub-sub-notebook — a few months back, folks have been saying it was a mistake. Now it’s dead.

I liked the idea, but felt it was the wrong solution: the iPhone and the Nokia N800 seem to prove people now want something that isn’t just a workhorse, but another onramp to the social web, whereas the Foleo seemed to be aimed simply at business customers. Such folk have long been used to lugging heavy stuff around, so it made no sense.

Anyway, Ed has done the right thing and knocked the project on the head, taking a $10 million hit (while sparing a moment for the poor third party developers who committed time and resources to software to run on the dang thing). What is most telling, though, are the comments left on his blog post announcing the gadget’s demise. They reveal the frustration and supportive passion of Palm users around the world, and to me illustrate what people really want from the once-great company:

  • a better interface that isn’t so buggy and unreliable.
  • better battery life (the Foleo boasted six hours. But remember the IIIx: days and days on a couple of AAAs. How far backwards have we gone?)
  • more durable. The IIIx also survived a lot of bashing about.
  • a phone that isn’t a sop to the phone companies — in other words, so it can do VoIP, work on WiFi networks as well as cellular ones.
  • find a way of getting a bigger screen onto a Treo. How about projection?  
  • GPS. Things have moved on, Ed, and nowadays we expect our devices to fit a lot more in.
  • Like good cameras. Not just for snapping, but for scanning.
  • And 3.5G.
  • And probably WiMAX.
  • And big storage.
  • And decent software that can handle PDFs, flash, browsing and interactive stuff.
  • And decent keyboards (get back in bed with the ThinkOutside guys, or whoever bought them.) I still love my Bluetooth keyboard and can’t understand why they’re considered such an afterthought.
  • Voice commands and voice recognition.
  • USB connectivity

The bottom line, is that we’ve been thinking the PDA is dead, whereas we should be thinking the other way around: The smartphone is just a PDA with connectivity. A good PDA does all these things we’ve been talking about, and while we take calls on it, that’s a small part of what it is about. We just want the things we did on our PDA to be connected, that’s all.

That’s not just about being able to take calls, it’s about SMS, email, browsing, and of being able to meld into our environment — GPS to know where we are, cameras and HSDPA and GPS to take photos that go straight to Flickr, tools like Jaiku to wrap us into our social network. It’s still a digital assistant, it’s just a connected digital assistant.

As one commenter put it, it’s still a Getting Things Done Device.It’s just we do lots of different things these days, so a to do list shouldn’t be where you stop.

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At Last, a Zoomable World


It’s sometimes hard to get my friends excited about the technology I’m interested in, and that’s often down to the fact that a) the exciting stuff is often a big shift in what that technology can do and b) I’m not good at explaining these things to people, especially in wine bars, for some reason.

Last night, for example, I was trying to get someone excited about the Nokia N95. It’s a good phone, but the thing that most gets me excited is the ability to take good photos (5 megapixel camera) and then immediately upload them to Flickr (or anywhere else) via ShoZu, with a GPS tag attached. I just love that idea because it pulls all these technologies together (camera, phone, GPS, 3.5G connection) and makes something of them:

  • it’s seamless. I don’t need to do anything except say yes when a message pops up answering if the photo I just took should be uploaded
  • it’s instantaneous. As soon as the photo is uploaded it’s visible on Flickr. Anyone who wants to can see what I just saw.
  • it’s physical. Now my photo can be seen in geographical context, or seen on Google Earth, or whatever.

But this is just the start. We’re getting closer to a zoomable world, as imagined by the likes of the late Jef Raskin. Images will become the way we transfer, navigate and access all sorts of data: it’s often easier to navigate through thumbnails than it is through filenames. Think Google Earth using 3Dconnexion’s SpaceNavigator but applied to information. The closest I think we have at the moment is TopicScape. For a sign of what this might look like, check out Microsoft’s photo-based acquisition, SeaDragon, which will make viewing everything, from maps to newspapers, something that we can do on more or less any device. (See Long Zheng’s blog post for a demo at TED, and tools like Widsets for pushing the boundaries of what can be viewed on a small screen.)

The other big change coming that appears in the demo above is that this data will become more meaningful as it’s incorporated into bigger arrangements of data. Instead of us just uploading and tagging/geotagging photos, those photos will help make up 3D maps of the world– check out the BBC/Photosynth gallery in Long’s excellent post on this. Imagine that tied to Google Earth-type environments, and then imagine it time-tagged as well as geo-tagged, and you can see the possibilities. Suddenly every photo we take will fit somewhere into a greater mosaic:


This is why I think people should buy phones like the N95, because I think these tools — camera, phone, fast connection, GPS, editing features — are going to make ordinary folk much more excited about the content-creating revolution that started with blogs.  

The Bluetooth Gun

Bluetooth in the line of fire? New Scientist reports of a police gun invention that when fired will automatically send its position to fellow officers who can then, presumably, provide backup.

The idea is that when a police officer is holding his gun correctly — both hands on the weapon — he or she can’t easily reach for the radio. So inventor Kevin Sinha of Georgia, “has come up with a simple way around the problem and Motorola, which has made police radios for many years, has pitched in.” The invention involves a Bluetooth transmitter chip controlled by a sensor in the gun which detects when the firing pin is triggered. Whenever a shot is fired the gun sends out a signal to a GPS radio on the wearer’s belt which determines the wearer’s precise position and transmits a pre-recorded message along with the location.

An interesting use of Bluetooth (and GPS). Of course, knowing how hard it is to couple two Bluetooth devices, and their tendency to need “waking up” even if they are paired, I wouldn’t want to rely on it in hairy situations. Like being shot at, for example.

Wikipedia Via Wi-Fi

I enjoyed reading this piece, somewhat belatedly, from Oliver Starr’s Mobile Weblog, where he describes a future where Wikipedia is no longer confined to the webpage but could be all around us: Location

Using your phone, as if it was a PC mouse, you uncover snippets of information from the world around you. You click on an old house in the road and a wealth of digital information comes onto your phone screen. Some contain video and audio links.

The technology that would allow this to happen is discussed, but it seems that Oliver doesn’t mention another option: Wi-Fi Positioning. I’ve been researching this for this week’s column (out on Friday, subscription only, I’m afraid), and it sounds to me a much better option, at least in urban areas.

I imagine it would work like this: Your Wi-Fi device (which soon will be as ubiquitous in a phone as in a PDA or laptop) will figure out where you are using Wi-Fi positioning (or, I suppose, if you’re at Stonehenge, this could be done via GPS).

If you’re prepared, you would have uploaded the PDA/phone ready version of Wikipedia for that part of the world, and the Wi-Fi positioning would pluck passages relevant to where you are (“you’re standing on a cobbled street built in 1765; the cobbles are hewn from a nearby quarry run by elves. Click here for directions to the quarry. Click here to meet an elf”.) Or it could give up a map of nearby entries and routes to them (with Wi-Fi positioning this could be inside a building as much as outside).

If you’re a visitor who hasn’t uploaded anything prior to the visit, participants in the project — local councils, individuals, owners of attractions — could store the relevant information on their Wi-Fi network and allow your unit to download it for viewing. This would not only mean that users who hadn’t thought of downloading the information before would still benefit, but folks who didn’t even know the service existed could prep their devices to make use of it. Needless to say, this downloaded information could also contain advertising.

This is in some ways similar to podcast guides, or sightseeing tours, or podguides, which offer spoken commentary on places. Wi-Fi positioning could make these all powerful tools, with little or no extra outlay on the part of end-users.