Smart Phones and Mobile phones and Opinion and Wireless and Return on Technology and Technology

Use your cell phone as a tracking device

February 16, 2009

Some time back, I wrote about my dream application for cell phones, the ability to find someone else even in a crowded area. I've been to a lot of conferences, hotel meetings and even major graduation ceremonies where I've wished fervently for a way to find one particular person, even if her or she wasn't within visual range.

Calling or texting is an option, unless the person is already on the phone, unable to reach his or her phone, or you don't know the number. I envision a screen with a simple grid like a radar scope, with dots on it representing the cell phones nearby that want to be found. I see this as being rather close-range, within a few hundred yards at most.

Now it would seem the capability is closer than ever, although not yet entirely in my sweaty palm. For years, the closest a cell carrier could pin down your position was within the signal area of the tower you were using at the moment. In windblown suburbia, that could be as far as two miles from the tower. In packed urban areas, that shrinks to as little as a quarter-mile. But that's still hardly pinpoint accuracy.

After 9/11, the federal government required that most cell phones come equipped with location devices, so the owner could be found in an emergency. Cell phone companies obliged with different methods, depending on the carrier. Most have a combination of global positioning system and tower location. In areas with lots of towers, it's comparatively easy to pin down a spot within 300 yards or so using only the tower signals as a reference. GPS can do much better, generally between 20 and 100 yards.

Initially, the only intent was to implant 911 assistance in your phone, but such locating ability should not lie fallow, so phone makers began tinkering with ways to use the GPS full time. The most obvious way to take advantage was to make your phone do the same job as the GPS unit you can put on your dashboard to avoid having to stop and ask for directions.

AT&T, Sprint and Verizon all have phones that will double as GPS receivers, although they're all high-end, more expensive phones, such as the BlackBerry Curve. This feature may trickle down to the less expensive ones, but the smaller screens will inevitably make it tougher to use on those phones.

Of course, you can't drive and visually consult the phone at the same time, so the carriers have to rely heavily on voice. On some, you can call a number and just speak the address you want to reach. After that, the phone talks to you to give you instructions, just like the stand-alone GPS units do. The phones will usually show you traffic congestion, so if you have a passenger who can monitor it, you can find out where you'll hit jams. But this capability isn't always accurate. And since the locator relies partly on tower signals, it's less useful in the hinterlands.

There are other ways to leverage phone-locator technology. If your phone knows where you are, and where you want to go, it can get you to an office building or a restaurant. And if you're looking for a restaurant, it's likely you may want to know how well it's been rated. Probably the most popular mapping software is Google Maps, which can not only get you there, but also show you what it will look like when you arrive, thanks to Street View (www.google.com). Pair that with a review site like Yelp (www.yelp.com) and you have a one-stop find-and-rate system readily accessible by "smart phone."

But my dream application continues to elude me, although it may be on the horizon. There are "friend finder" services popping up that will let you fi nd your friends, or your colleagues, without having to text them.

One of the most interesting at the moment is from Google, an application called "Latitude" that was just released this month. It's accessible through iGoogle, the portal Google offers on its site, or through a smart phone. You send an invitation by e-mail to your friends, and when they accept, they start showing up on Google Maps, and you start showing up on theirs. Or at least their cell phones do.

I can see a day when I'll be sitting in my favorite independent coffee shop, awaiting the arrival of a colleague for a meeting, and tracking her arrival on a map displayed in a browser on my wireless laptop, or on my smart phone (if I ever break down and buy one of those). It's not my ultimate application of a "radar scope" of people near me in large spaces or crowded venues, because the range is too wide, but it's a start.
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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.

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