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Peter Cochrane's Blog: GPS changes everything

Mostly for the better...

Written while flying from Heathrow to Istanbul and dispatched to silicon.com from Istanbul Airport via a free Wi-Fi service

I remember buying a car when the heater was optional and a radio wasn't even on the list. Today our expectations are much higher, as are production standards and quality, and it is unthinkable that any vehicle wouldn't come complete with these items as standard. We have moved on, and the options list now includes automatic transmission, air conditioning, sound system upgrades, spoilers and GPS navigation systems. Soon these will all be standard too!

For the past six years I have enjoyed the benefit of having GPS in three successive vehicles, and in the past two years, in a succession of hire cars across the US. Beyond the comfort of air conditioning, GPS has made the greatest impact on my driving and me. No more reading of maps, and making errors on freeways when tired - GPS just takes care of it. Likewise, driving in a strange town or city is now a relatively stress-free experience. Just punch in the address or zip code and go - everything is taken care of. And should I find myself in a traffic jam, what could now be easier than a rapid re-route?

Some GPS systems have better interfaces than others but in my estimation the benefit always outweighs the interface pain. On the upside I see far more good interfaces than bad, and in my own car I think the design is one of the best applications of multimedia I have encountered anywhere. When national traffic management systems are linked in so I can be warned of developments such as traffic jams and be advised of the best alternative routings, the service will be complete. And should it be extended even further to advise on the optimum departure time, travel stops etc, then I will be ecstatic.

So is there a downside to all this? Well, because of my age I have developed a mind map of locations and distances/times across the UK and the US, along with maps of all the cities and towns I most commonly visit. For example, I feel equally at home in London, San Jose and San Francisco. Not so for young people it seems. Some are now buying their first car complete with GPS right off the bat and so no longer refer to a map from day one. Even cab and logistics companies are gradually adopting GPS to broaden the employee base and reduce operating costs.

Does this all matter? This seems to me to be on a par with the abandonment of mental arithmetic skills for the pocket calculator and spreadsheet. Older people worried about that too but the world still spins on its axis. At the same time, not having a sense of geography has, I think, a much broader impact that we should be more concerned about.

Having absolutely no idea where you are necessitates a GPS unit in your hand as well as in your car. Without a rudimentary mind map, people just make mistakes when entering data into a GPS unit. And when satellite lock is lost due to high buildings, wet trees and intense rain, the user is truly lost and prone to make erroneous decisions. The good news is that nano-gyros will soon afford us an inertial navigation facility that does not rely on satellites alone, and it will also work indoors. In addition, there are mobile telephone base stations capable of providing location estimate through triangulation and waypoint references.

We stand on the edge of a new era in terms of maps and mapping where individuals will contribute their location data, photographs and floor plans using mobile devices. In North America this has now started with people using GPS, cameras, PDAs and laptops to take photographs of views and intersections to augment and populate public maps built from satellite images. One motivation for this is the 'thin' nature of maps compared to the EU where accurate and extensive mapping has been a necessity of the near continuous wars of previous centuries. In contrast, North America was never afforded this advantage! So in a way we are again becoming the builders of maps, we are again to become the navigators - but this time around on a micro and a macro scale.

My guess is that soon we will have gone full circle and we will all have gained a new and a more intimate knowledge of our world, but through our own hand, and the use of the latest technology.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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