Getting lost (and losing things) is a lot harder nowadays. Thanks to GPS, transponders and cameras, we know a lot more about where things and people are and where they’re going. Two articles caught my atttention recently.
The first dealt with G.M.’s enhanced vision system. This system pulls together a lot of technologies (including a neat heads-up display), but it has two kinds of location systems — GPS and an eye/head tracking system. The first is familiar — a satellite to determine where the car is. But the second (apparently a camera with pattern recognition software) tracks location at a very fine level. The system knows not just where you are, but where your eyes are looking.
Cameras increase the range and flexibility of location information so that it becomes very personal. It’s easy to imagine combining position information from two cameras, set at right angles, to control an avatar in an online world like Second Life.
Viewing GPS and cameras as part of a spectrum of location input devices suggests a range of applications for blending data and real life, including the kind of intrusive advertising that Tom Cruise’s character had to deal with in the movie Minority Report.
While participation is voluntary, localized ads are already explicitly tied to the applications in the second article I read, “Telling Friends Where You Are (or Not)”. Users “check in” from cell phones, providing permission to share their location with friends and those who want to ping them with information. That information could be a coupon for a discount or localized suggestions and tips on what to do. Although it isn’t moment-to-moment tracking, it’s not far from the Marauders Map in Harry Potter. In fact, one application provides maps that pinpoint the location of people in your network.
Why would people let people know where they are? An obvious answer is that they can meet with friends and associates who are in the vicinity. But a whole array of incentives, including games, reputation (top customer badges), accreditation (reviews verified by presence), access to conversations (chats at a concert), discounts and gifts are supplied to encourage people to check in regularly. Here, the heart of the application is GPS, which is available as a standard feature in many phones.
There is an intrinsic value of knowing location for individuals, business and government. For individuals it leads to access: you can find me and I can find you. People can exchange their location information for incentives. They can prove where they’ve been and acquire rights, privileges and reputation.
Businesses can find better opportunities, make offers and develop better understanding of their customers. Governments can pinpoint services (including emergency services), coordinate activity (such as traffic) and increase security.
All of these have negative as well as positive aspects. Privacy is at risk. Profiles can become a means to manipulate people. Dissidents can be tracked. The list goes on, even for a simple view of location devices and information processing.
But the real magic, for good or ill, begins to happen when location is used in combination with other information, especially data that comes from real-time sensors. And the stakes for change in society go even higher when information is processed to find patterns, develop profiles, coordinate activity and change the status of devices. I’ll explore these ideas more in next week’s blog. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.