[TECH] GPS Mashups That Matter


Less than ten years ago, GPS devices were slow and sometimes inaccurate. And even when they were accurate, their interfaces were often impossible to, well, navigate. They had a nice following among geo-caching geeks, but for the rest of us? Forget it.

These days, even the most technologically impaired motorists swear by the GPS navigators on their dashboards. Today’s devices are accurate, fast, and easy to figure out. They often come with traffic guidance, Bluetooth for hands-free cell phone calls, and the ability to give audio directions using street names (e.g., “turn right on 10th Avenue”).

But to stay useful, relevant, and most important, cool, GPS makers are looking to “mashups” to help them move forward. By combining (or mashing) the core positioning technology with massive databases on a range of information — everything from traffic reports to restaurant information — GPS systems are expanding their usefulness in myriad aspects of life.

Road Warriors’ Tools
Garmin, a leader in car-based systems, is known for the speech recognition software in its nüvi 800 series that lets you keep your eyes on the road. But the new Garmin nüvi 885T (retailing at $800) adds lane assist with junction view (guides you to the correct lane for an approaching turn or exit) as well as dynamic content (check your flight status, avoid traffic backups, compare local gas prices, get advanced weather info, and more) from MSN Direct. The company has also added ecoRoute software to recommend the most fuel-efficient routes, and nüMaps Lifetime lets customers download the latest map and point-of-interest information every quarter for the life of their device.

The new GO 740 LIVE device from TomTom is the GPS maker’s mashup bet on real-time traffic data. Preprogrammed with a new and extended version of TomTom’s IQ Routes technology, it calculates routes based on the real average speed measured on roads rather than speed limits. The info is gleaned from millions of global TomTom customer devices that anonymously report traffic flow data, combined with traffic, speed, and incident reports that are downloaded every two to five minutes. In true mashup fashion, the GO 740 LIVE can also provide a list of other data, like nearby restaurant info (including Zagat and Michelin ratings), and even find the cheapest gas prices wherever you are. Available at major retailers beginning this spring, it’s priced at $499, which includes a free year of TomTom LIVE services.

In a mashup that would have speed demons cheering and traffic cops sneering, Cobra released the Nav One 5000 last year, which has a built-in database of red-light cameras in the U.S. and Canada. Drivers are warned as they approach a camera. The Nav One 5000 retails for around $400, most likely less money than the price of a couple of speeding tickets. I’m sure Smokey isn’t fond of this idea, but it’s an imaginative application of the technology, and something we’ll likely see copied by others in the future.

New GPS ideas
Here’s a GPS mashup that can literally save your life. The SPOT Satellite Messenger (subject of a previous TGW article) uses both GPS and the satellite communications network to report a user’s location, send “I’m OK” emails or SMS alerts to friends and family, and even call for emergency 9-1-1 assistance and rescue in the most remote areas without cellular or wireless coverage. Able to run up to one year on two AA batteries, the bright orange hand-held device is resistant to water, temperature extremes, and shock. It’s priced at $169.99, with a $9.99/month service fee. It’s unclear whether other GPS makers see these devices as emergency communicators, but SPOT is certainly pointing the way.

Marketers and operators of tourist destinations are starting to take advantage of GPS technology with mashups that give visitors a more robust experience. The GPS Ranger from AudioConexus is a hand-held GPS device that tour operators can customize and preprogram, then rent to tourists for self-directed touring. It pinpoints the user’s location and triggers embedded audio, video, text, and pictures when the visitor reaches the coordinates of each point of interest. It’s being used in places like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, the San Francisco Zoo, and tourist destination cities like Austin, Texas, and Florida’s Key West — no tour guide required.

Considering how much information is continuously being gathered in our ever-increasingly data-filled world, we should watch for more imaginative mashup ideas from the GPS companies. Regardless of what they come up with, the saying remains true: “No matter where you go, there you are.” the end

Bill Pfleging writes about technology for national publications, such as ComputerWorld, Razor, and Inc. Pfleging is a tech columnist for a New York newspaper and the co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don’t Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive.

Image credit: Rotorhead

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