September 7, 2006

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GPS everywhere
Find your direction
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Buckaroo Banzai said it best: wherever you go, there you are.

And how better to tell where precisely you are than with GPS? The Global Positioning System offers down-to-the-meter accuracy and there is no shortage of navigation devices that use it. In the past year — since my last column on the technology — prices have come down dramatically and it’s not uncommon to find a GPS with the capability to play music and video files.

If the simple GPS navigation device is no longer the only way to go, you might want to consider what’s out there. It depends, as always, on what you plan to do with the thing.

Watches
GPS-enabled watches aren’t exactly new, but ones that actually look and wear like normal watches are. Up until recently, so-called “wristwatch” GPS units were really just small handheld units with a wriststrap. Marketed toward joggers, bikers and other outdoor athletes who really needed to really know exactly how far they traveled, the big units did have the advantages of longer battery life and providing a little extra weight to lug around for a tougher workout.

More recent watches, from actual watchmakers like Timex and Casio, integrate the GPS receiver into a much smaller case, making it look like a normal watch. They still need rechargeable batteries, since a GPS takes a lot more power than a simple watch; a normal button battery would need to be replaced every time you used the GPS functionality. Most can be charged via USB, which is convenient, because you can also use bundled software to download data from the watch and track your exercise.

Telephones
I know what you’re thinking: what use is a GPS on a telephone that’s always hooked up to the same land line? I also know you’re only thinking that to be a smartass. We’re talking cell phones here.

Different carriers offer their own services, usually with a monthly fee, so check with your provider. You’ll also need a fairly new phone and a prying curiosity; Verizon’s recently released Chocolate, for example, doesn’t trumpet its GPS capability like it does its music playing features. That’s probably a hint that the navigation functionality isn’t all that spectacular, but I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt because the demo on Verizon’s Web site is pretty darn shiny. You do have to download a small application, and pay an additional monthly fee, but once you do, the phone can guide you with spoken directions and an exact “You Are Here” map.

Verizon and Nextel offer navigation services; most others lag behind. Why haven’t GPS phones taken off before? I place my bet on tiny, tiny screens.

Game consoles
Again, we’re not talking about home consoles here, but portable ones. Hackers have managed to connect GPS receivers to both the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, but it looks like there might be a simple, plug-in solution for the PSP soon. It’s expected to arrive in October, but it’s never wise to hold one’s breath on these things. Announced in March, the PSP-290 accessory will work with some games and probably navigation software. Next time you see someone driving while furiously mashing buttons on their game machine, don’t panic — they’re just getting directions.


Comments? Thoughts? Discuss these articles and more at hippoflea.com

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