Electronic Design

Wireless Location Services: Coming To A Reality Near You

The satellite navigational system known as the Global Positioning System (GPS) isn't new. Yet the growing popularity of consumer-based personal navigation units from traditional GPS companies like Garmin and Magellan, as well as new GPS players like TomTom, is exposing this technology to the general public. The consumer's increasing awareness of GPS may be just the impetus the industry needs to drive the technology to the next level of market acceptance.

The average consumer can purchase a personal navigation unit for anywhere from $300 on up. While these devices have successfully popularized the idea of navigation, there are issues of portability, a high price tag, narrowly defined usability, and technological limitations associated with traditional GPS technology that may still stand in the way of their widespread adoption.

Many industry experts believe the true potential of the GPS market--and its compelling draw to the consumer--lies in combining GPS and wireless access in a mobile handset to improve accessibility and affordability, as well as to provide a broader choice of services. In addition, it will eliminate the need for multiple positioning devices, as specially equipped mobile handsets become the only device a user needs to gain access to these services.

Wireless access dramatically expands the use case for GPS and enables Assisted-GPS (A-GPS), a technology that leverages the wireless network to make traditional GPS work faster and more accurately. A-GPS extends precise positioning across all terrains and in areas difficult to map with traditional GPS, such as dense metropolitan areas (a.k.a. "urban canyons"). This unsurpassed accuracy enables location services beyond navigation and security to a broad new array of emerging applications related to community, entertainment, and commerce.

Imagine, for example, trying to meet a group of friends for an impromptu get together. Using a community service like a buddy finder or friend finder, that task would be as simple as accessing your address book, selecting the people you want to meet, and sharing with them the location of a meeting place. Their mobile handsets would then help them navigate directly to you.

Wireless access enables a range of other services. The WaveMarket family finder can notify caregivers when a child arrives home from school, while the Smarter Agent real-estate service lets users conduct real-time property searches while driving through specific areas. Another interesting service, Bones-in-Motion (BiM) Active, turns the mobile handset into your own personal coach. It tracks athletic activity and progress toward fitness goals, and even allows you to upload data to a personal online portal for long-term goal tracking.

GPS-enabled location services like these have become fairly common in China, Japan, and South Korea. What's really exciting, though, is that interest is now increasing in North America. To meet this demand, carriers like Sprint and Verizon recently launched a wide selection of A-GPS wireless location services.

It's clear that A-GPS and wireless location services in phones, PDAs, and other devices are here and ready to take their place in the North American mindset. To date, Qualcomm alone boasts over 150 million handsets that deploy the company's A-GPS-enabled chip sets, with competing companies adding millions more. A growing number of these entry-level to high-end handsets, from vendors such as LG Electronics, Motorola, Samsung, and Sanyo, now support location services.

That's not to say there aren't any obstacles. For wireless location services to reach their true potential and achieve widespread adoption, there needs to be continued uptake by the average consumer, who will likely demand simpler, more effective wireless-device user interfaces. Also, consumers no doubt will need to be pushed along by more aggressive marketing and promotional campaigns from wireless carriers.

Furthermore, it's still not clear what applications and services will resonate best with wireless subscribers. Safety, navigation, and business applications are already staking out a claim. But it's a safe bet that in the years to come, additional applications built around the concept of community, entertainment, and commerce, and incorporating a slew of multimedia aspects, also will be a significant part of the playing field.

TAGS: Mobile
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