Tuesday, January 31, 2006

GeoVector: Point & Shop

You point your phone/camera/gps to a restaurant in some part of town. Push some keys and is presented with a review about it that you read right there.

Afterwards, you are walking around town and find this nice building and want to know its history. Same thing. Point and read about it.

Ok, when? Where?
Now. In Japan.

GeoVector announced (with its partner Mapion) that KDDI mobile phone users in Japan can now point to a buiding and obtain information about it using "Mapion Local Search for Mobile Phones".

Based in San Francisco and with offices in New Zealand and Japan, GeoVector holds quite a few significant patents covering augmented reality, 3D search engines and virtual reality systems. In Japan, they were able to connect with companies that had the hardware necessary and customers willing to use its service.

Phones and PDA's with cameras, embedded GPS and integrated compass (like the Sony-Ericsson CDMA-based W21S) are all over the place in Japan and that was a natural fit for GeoVector's technology. The idea is to provide even more Location Based Services where someone can point and buy some product or service, like a movie ticket or parking space.

Ok, when do we get it here??

Answering my own question, I found a column written by Rafe Neddleman on Release 1.0 where Peter Ellenby, the founder of GeoVector answers that it "will not be soon".

Peter points Semacode.org for an example of a non-GPS based geo-reference technique.

[Based on report from Wireless IQ]

Monday, January 30, 2006

GPS informs: your bus is coming

This one just blew me away. Several cities in U.S. are using an AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location) kit provided by NextBus, a privately owned company based in Emeryville, CA. In fact, San Francisco is using NextBus for Muni's since 1999.

The kit includes a GPS receiver, a Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) and the respective antennas. From a job posting at NextBus website:

"The NextBus system is a multi-tier system written primarily in Java and JSP's with a database back-end. NextBus configures its GIS data with a heavily customized version of ArcView. NextBus deploys hardware into the field that is programmed in C. The hardware communicates wirelessly to the NextBus servers."
From NextBus' website you can check a bus route on a local map or through its interface to Google Maps. It will tell you exactly when the next bus is expected to arrive. You can receive this information on a mobile device (wireless phones and pda's). You can also set alerts that will tell when the next bus is supposed to arrive. Great tool.

Gregory Szorc's Blog (which first pointed me to NextBus) describes how to debug the NextBus' API.

A Map for your Blog

FeedMap lets you create a little map image based on the location you provide in a blog. I thought it would use the GeoTags that can be added to the META Tags of a webpage, but while submiting a blog feed it asks for either an address or latitude/longitude coordinates.

Click on Submit Blog under Options on the right navigation bar. In the same page you first provide the URL for your blog's feed. Enter a blog XML feed address, for example in my case the URL I get from FeedBurner's RSS 1.0 feed:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/JeepxGpsDiscoveries.rss.xml
Provide an address or latitude and longitude and your will be provided with a little code snippet that can be added to your page. Check the bottom right on this post to see it. You can check which blogs are around and events. It makes use of the MapPoint API provided by Microsoft.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cold Start and Aided GPS

Imagine that you wake up in a dark place without any known reference to help you figure out where you are or when. You will need to start getting your bearings by listening carefully to any sound, looking for clues.

That is pretty much how a GPS receiver "wakes up" after being moved hundreds of miles from its previous location, days or weeks after being used. It doesn't have a clue about its whereabouts.

So how does it figure out where it is so it can tell you?

Remember that a receiver determines its position by calculating the time a signal sent by a GPS satellite takes to reach it. But for that the receiver needs to know first where that satellite is located, precisely.

As you know already the faster a receiver can lock its current location, less time you will have to wait to start using its data. That's usually called Time To First Fix (TTFF).

Almanac & Ephemeris

Each satellite generates and broadcasts its own 1023-bit Pseudo Random Noise (PRN) codes, these are pseudo random sequences that a receiver knows about and tries to match by generating that same signal in order to identify a particular satellite. They also encode the time a signal is being transmitted. The receiver will need to find this signal in time (the signal is transmited at 1023 Mbits/sec) and frequency (added doppler effect from the satellite movement).

Each satellite is sending its PRC (Pseudo Random Code), position and current time 50 times per second. After locking up a signal the receiver will obtain this data and calculate the time difference from when the signal was sent to the Time of Arrival (TOA). The signal from a 4th satellite is used to calibrate the time in the receiver.

Included among the data received at this time are the almanac and ephemeris.

Almanac data is not very precise but valid for several months. A Factory Reset would require the download of a full almanac which might take up to 12.5 minutes*. All GPS satelites broadcast almanac data from each other.

But each satellite broadcasts only its own ephemeris data which includes very precise orbital and clock correction data. The ephemeris data is used to calculate the satellite position for any time within the period of its orbit described by those ephemeris.

On a "cold start" the receiver knows "where to look" in the sky based on the almanac data available and will try to obtain ephemeris data from each visible satellite. That ephemeris data will be valid up to 4 hours. Every 30 seconds each satellite broadcasts its ephemeris. If your receiver is blocked while trying to obtain the data, it will have to start over in the next cycle.

On a "warm start" some ephemeris is already available and the receiver can almost "guess" its position and in a "hot start" the receiver has almost all of it readily available. This whole process can translate in minutes or seconds of wait depending in the kind and quality of data available for a receiver to obtain a fix.

* This time was originally pointed out by Dale DePriest for Garmin receivers

Aided GPS

In an effort to drop the TTFF in general and particularly in poor visibility conditions, companies like Sirf and the privately owned Global Locate introduced mechanisms to help receivers in obtaining ephemeris data without the need for the usual wait associated with it.

Notice that there is a difference between Assisted and Aided GPS (both called AGPS to complicate things a bit). Aided GPS is "generally understood to be either ephemeris or almanac aiding". While Assisted GPS uses data from a wireless network infrastructure, sometimes down to location information itself based on the Cell ID from a mobile phone.

There is also a difference regarding where changes are made to provide this aid: at the control plane by modifying TCP/IP format within the actual wireless network infrastructure or at the user plane where no major upgrades are necessary and the distribution is made thru messages like SMS for example.

Global Locate uses Trimble survey grade reference receivers to build its own private reference network to "collect, format and redistribute live ephemeris". This data is then used to provide Long-Term Orbit (LTO) data based in orbit models that according to this PDF will provide very precise satellite ephemeris good for up to 10 days.

The HP 6500 PDA includes "Quick GPS Connection" software that makes use of Global Locate LTO data which can be obtained thru a cradle sync or downloaded from the Net. GpsPassion tested it against a SirfStarIII equiped receiver.

Motorola phones equipped with GPS receivers already make use of Sirf's SirfLoc servers through its iDEN (Integrated Digital Enhanced Network) to obtain aided information for fast fixes.

Sirf just announced InstantFix, a mechanism similar to that provided by Global Locate where users will be able to download ephemeris good for up to 7 days for use with their receivers. In the same week that Sirf announced this service, GlobalLocate announced two patents just obtained covering the generation and distribution of LTO data. Let's hope they figure out a way to work together.

One of the selling points from LTO vendors is that knowing "where to look" for a signal a GPS receiver can use a lot less power to keep track of its location, from very weak signals and even under very poor visibility conditions, including indoors.

GpsPassion has a comparison of the Cold Start and Hot Start times for several GPS receivers for PocketPC's. For more info on Global Locate check this article from GPSWorld.

If you want more details about the operation of the GPS satellites check here, here and here (PowerPoint slides).

Friday, January 27, 2006

GPS News: Teaching GPS to Kids, Golfing

This is the kind of news that I wish we would see more often instead of everyone freaking out about tracking everything and everyone:

Kids at schools from Lenoir County in Kinston, North Carolina will be offered outdoor activities classes where they will be able to learn map reading skills, use GPS and play geocaching. Great example.

Golf players are getting fed up to have to wait for players using GPS in their fields: "People are pacing off yardages, looking for sprinkler heads, hunting for yardage markers, driving their carts to every ball because they have GPS" and meanwhile, a game will take a couple more hours than it used to.

Brits might be able to have driverless cars equipped with GPS and RFID in their roads by 2056. And Toyota is working on a self-parking Lexus that makes a writer wonder if we will be needed in the future.

Tracking Dept. News

School buses in Palm Beach, FL will be equipped with GPS so parents can relax and not worry about their kids being abducted.

A smarter use of of GPS was made to track ransom money of a kidnapping. I bet the waves of kidnappings in South America and other countries would take a nice toll if this tactic were put in place.

Orange, a French-based company, will distribute Columba, a "phone-bracelete" that uses Assisted-GPS in GSM/GPRS phones to help track Alzheimer's patients.

GPS is being used at Yellowstone to help scientists track its volcanic activity.

Fisherman in India now can be saved from being caught in Pakistani waters with the help of GPS receivers subsidised by the Government.

Telespial released TrackStick, pretty much the smallest self-contained GPS receiver around. The device logs its location, timestamp, heading and altitude at regular intervals and store it to 1Mb of Flash RAM. You can output its data in .rtf, xls, html and as described by OgleEarth, GoogleEarth .kml files. You can also link to MapQuest and Virtual Earth from its companion software app.

I love this part from the description in its website: "The Track Stick's micro computer contains special mathematical algorithms, that can calculate how long you have been indoors. While visiting family, friends or even shopping, the Track Stick can accurately time and map each and every place you have been."

Its companion product, Track Stick Manager can be used then to upload its data through an USB connection. It makes use of D2XX, a driver by Future Technologies that allows reading data from USB with help from a single .DLL (check under the drivers directory, you will need to install it too).

Finally Secom, the same company that equipped backpacks with RFID for school kids, is providing (most probably Assisted) GPS devices for elders in Japan that can't find their way back home.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

L2C and GPS Satellites

Before everyone gets too excited about the announcements on L2C availability for GPS users (a new civilian signal) consider this first: there is one satellite capable of transmitting L2C signals, two more planned for 2006 and 12 for the next years. This satellite will be going around the Earth during its lifetime.

Two: Twenty Block II (plus 9 Block IIR, Replenishment) satellites rover around the Earth today, they are not geo-stationaries. They are only visible from a given location for some hours during the day. If you want to check when a satellite will be visible from your or any other area, check this Planning software from Trimble.

Three: you will need a dual or multi-frequency receiver capable of handling the currently available L1, (in some products L2) and the new L2C frequencies. So, it is great that these changes are coming, thanks to the recognition for the need of quality location data by groups like surveyors. But they will take a good couple of years to happen and for now they sound more like a PR effort from the White House to compensate the volume of press given to Galileo, the European Space Agency effort that will also take some years to be fully available.

L2C signals will be more powerful than the current L1 used by handheld GPS devices. Good news are that another even better signal called L5 will be made available in the future, with an even higher power level and larger bandwidth that will "make it even easier to acquire and track weak signals". The first satellite carrying L5 capable payload should be launched sometime this year.

Trimble seems to be the only vendor that currently offers, thanks to its proximity to the group that developed the new payload of the new satelittes, receivers capable of handling L2C (and L5) signals.

Finally, it may take a while for mass market production of consumer oriented chipsets capable of handling multi-frequency signals that can feed consumers with cool gadgets. Surveyors, planes and boats will come first. Probably in this order. Geocaching will most possibly come after them.

Check this article from Professional Surveyor Magazine and this one from Trimble for a good history and the current state of the GPS Satellites.

Maritime DGPS: Coastal Beacons

If you read the Using DGPS post you might have noticed the screenshot from GpsTweak highlighting one of the possible sources for correction information for data obtained from GPS satellites: External RTCM Data.

That means WAAS isn't the only way to get better accuracy with your receiver. Remember that WAAS was an effort from the FAA to improve landing of airplanes. When RTCM is mentioned you are talking about ground stations (currently maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies) or "beacons" transmitting data most often used by boats.

By selecting an external RTCM Data source you will be connecting a serial port in your GPS receiver (if one is available) to an external beacon receiver. This way you will be able to grab data that follows the RTCM SC-104 standard (proposed by the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services).

Or if your receiver is also capable of tuning frequencies in the KHz range used by the beacon transmitter you might be able to select Internal RTCM Data. Thales produces the MobileMapper CE which includes among its accessories a Bluetooth beacon receiver.

But I haven't seen CF cards that implement an internal RTCM receiver combined with the MHz range required for GPS satellite signals. If you know of any, let us know. Check this article by Chuck Husick for a good description of the Maritime DGPS.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Using DGPS

Ok, we covered the theory. Now let's practice. To set a GPS receiver in WAAS/EGNOS compatible mode you can use GpsTweak mentioned here two posts ago or MemoryMap Sirf Utility that is even simpler. GpsTweak can tell you a bit more about your receiver. But if you want to play safe, go with the MMSirf Utility. Or if you are really adventureous you can try SirfDemo.

This assumes that you have a Sirf-based GPS receiver, which will probably be the case, is trying to follow these directions and won't make me responsible for any problems that might arise from trying this. If you are not sure about your receiver, please check the specs of your model before using this utility.

Sirf receivers can usually operate in two protocols: NMEA (text-based) and Sirf (binary).

Now that you know that your receiver uses Sirf chipset, install and run GpsTweak. First select Setup | Port Settings... pick the COM port used by your card, speed of 4800 and NMEA as the GPS protocol. Select Setup | Connect. You should see NMEA sentences in the main window. (If not, you might already be in Sirf mode).

To obtain version and its current mode you need to switch from NMEA to Sirf mode. Select Command | Switch to Sirf. Wait for the ACK (acknowledgment) message. Now you can run Command | Poll version and Poll WAAS/EGNOS Status.

If you want to switch to DGPS select Command | Toggle WAAS/EGNOS. The DGPS source will switch from none to WAAS/EGNOS. Remember to switch back to NMEA protocol (Command | Switch to NMEA, OK), or your GPS software probably won't be able to understand it.

Following the above procedure I decided to check the altitude issue using the free VisualGPS CE which will show if you are using Differential GPS or not.

You can also check the GPGGA sentence for value 2 in the sixth field (One means GPS fix in SPS mode or Standard Positioning Service).

$GPGGA,000641.048,3658.4711,N,12201.5429,W,
2,05,2.0,1.7,M,-26.6,M,3.7,0000*47
It does take quite a bit more to obtain a DGPS fix than a regular, SPS one but I was able to get some pretty decent results. It required several readings but the average value obtained is better than anything I got previously (check the Least Square Average numbers in the screenshot above).

Differential GPS: WAAS

I can't look at 3/4 letters acronyms and not start to wonder what is hidden behind them. Sometimes I can get satisfied with the full name, other times the curiosity continues taking you down their paths. This time I had to stop at some point to write this post.

Let's start with the need first: before handheld GPS devices became available so we all could play geocaching, hike Yosemite or drive around LA, airplanes were trying to land in airstripes with very poor visibility and the FAA wanted to get them to do it safely. The problem was that GPS signals lacked the necessary precision for pilots to use them.

"Remember that GPS receivers use timing signals from at least four satellites to establish a position." But thanks to changes in the atmosphere and ionosphere plus other sources of errors these times have delays added to them and will add inaccuracy to the positions calculated based on them.

The FAA engineers came up with the idea of having a fixed receiver station with a known position that would calculate time instead of distance: "It figures out what the travel time of the GPS signals should be, and compares it with what they actually are. The difference is an 'error correction' factor." Then it broadcasts to the GPS satellites these correction values so they can adjust its measurements.

The plan was called "Wide Area Augmentation System" (or WAAS), a way to improve accuracy in the North American continent with Differential GPS. It translates today in 25 ground reference stations and two geostationary satellites with a fixed position over the Equator providing correction information and better accuracy to any compatible GPS receiver.

With the collaboration between continents with the European Space Agency (ESA) (and under a different acronym, SBAS for Satellite Based Augmentation System) EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service) is another set of satellites and ground stations that can also be used (if you happen to be under their satellites coverage) which adds a total of 44 stations.

From PocketGPSWorld: "Both EGNOS and WAAS systems are designed against the same [...] standards [...] both WAAS and EGNOS receivers [can] be interoperable, and, therefore, a receiver able to process WAAS will also process EGNOS and vice versa."

If you want more check this very well done tutorial from Trimble (Flash player recommended). Check also Dale DePriest who published an even better explanation of WAAS usage in Garmin receivers and Sam Worley's website who really knows his stuff.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sirf Altitude Issue

This is something that has been bugging me for a while. This whole altitude issue with Sirf based GPS receivers. The issue is related to the way GPS works but it gets worst with Sirf chips because earlier versions of its firmware (before 2.30) do not provide a correction value, called "geoid separation". Or the height of Mean Sea Level above the WGS84 ellipsoid.

We don't live in a perfect abstract ellipsoid, but in a rough and real geoid. The correction value would compensate the difference in height from the ellipsoid model to the mean sea level. For a visual explanation, check this diagram from the Victoria government website in Australia.

I have two CF cards that I use with the Toshiba e755. The Holux Ultra GM-270 I bought before knowing about DGPS (Differential GPS), WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) and EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service System), the GlobalSat BC-307 after. (The non-Ultra version of the GM-270 supports WAAS.)

After posting about GPSDash and its new Geodic Separation menu option I decided to investigate this matter a bit further. Here is what I found out. First I looked at the NMEA log file from both receivers based on information from this thread.

Basically the correction value should be present after the first M in the GPGGA sentence (for more on NMEA sentences check this post). This is the output example from the Holux 270:

$GPGGA,000021.531,3657.5968,N,12201.1615,W,1,07,1.3,-21.8,
M,,,,0000*0C
And this is the output from the GlobalSat BC 307
$GPGGA,212231.340,3656.3602,N,12150.1878,W,1,05,1.6,130.3,
M,-26.5,M,0.0,0000*49
Notice that the Holux doesn't provide any value after the M. That because the firmware version in the Holux GM-270 is pre 2.30 while the BC 307 which has a newer firmware does provide a correction value. A negative one: -26.5. So from that I now know that I need to set the geoid separation in GPSDash with "apply negative". This way, the -26.5 meters will be added to the current value (130.3 in the example above), resulting in an altitude value of 156.5 meters.

To make sure that these values are correct, one would need an accurate altimeter to verify it. Or read the values provided at sea level. But even applying the geoid separation value I still get at sea level about 20 meters above what it should be.

GpsTweak

If you are wondering about how to check the version of a Sirf firmware download & run GpsTweak. Select Sirf protocol under settings, plus the COM port and Command | Poll version. (You can also use this utility to turn on/off WAAS/EGNOS mode). For the BC 307 I got 2.3.2 GSW2-2.05.024 from GpsTweak. GSW2 means standard SiRFStar II software and 2.3.2 its version number. And the 2.0.5.024 is the manufacturer's internal version control number. The Holux had a pre-2.3 firmware.

I didn't find a way someone could upgrade the firmware on the Sirf chipset. It seems that you would need a Flash programmer according to this answer (which also explains how to interpret the version numbers obtained above). Some vendors provide this service.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Exercising with GPS

After reading about heart rates associated to GPS tracks with colors I decided to check for the gadgets that make this possible. We mentioned a while ago the Forerunner 305 just released at CES that includes the same features in a smaller package, but if you don't mind using a generation older device now is a good time to check the Garmin Forerunner 301 that includes a heart rate monitor, barometer and USB interface. It is currently on sale for about $170 at Amazon. It includes the Training Center software with which you can upload data from the GPS device and draw graphs to analyse your performance and fitness.

Garmin partner, MotionBased offers free accounts to its website where "GPS data is effectively harnessed and analyzed for fitness and training".

You generate log data by exercising, upload it from your device to a PC and your account's inbox at their server will let you identify, arrange and analyze its data, in cumulative series & stats.

MB will provide graphs on elevation, time, distance and speed data for an activity, plus heart rate, calories and weather conditions. Including a map with elevation profile. You can choose between street, photo, topographic and elevation background images for you track map. You can also join MotionBased's online community TrailNetwork to share your data and compare it with other members of the site.

Geek.com published a not too favorable review of the Forerunner 305 a while ago.

Garmin also produces a GPS Cyclocomputer, the Edge that also includes heart rate monitor, a bike mount, USB interface and the Training Center software.

[Update Apr 4th, 2006: Los Times article on Motion Based and the exercising with GPS trend.]

Another Garmin partner is TrainingPeaks, an online coach for endurance sports that will soon be supporting data upload from the Forerunner 205/305 and the Edge.

Timex is another company that produces GPS-based watches with heart monitors and data records, what they call BodyLink System which also includes the Timex Trainer software for data analysis.

[Update 2/22: Taiwan-based GlobalSat announced two wrist-based models GH-601/602 equipped with Sirf Star III chipset and USB interface]

GPSDash 2.5

Stefan Plattner has been working hard to improve GPSDash, his one-stop-shop GPS app (minus street navigation) for PocketPC devices. And he is doing a great job at it. GPSDash 2.5x requires a subscription fee upgrade (currently US$8) for owners of GPSDash 2.0. The idea is that you will be able to upgrade to new version releases during the subscription period of one year.

GPSDash 2.5 adds some interesting new tools to its already large feature set that includes support for waypoints, routes, map navigation, data analysis and log file recording and playback.

Map Manager

Major improvements were added to the companion Windows utility Map Manager (version 1.13). You can now convert multiple maps to the PDA format at once; georeference "un-northed" or non y-aligned image maps and export a (gun-ziped compressed) NMEA based log file to Google Earth. You can also export logs into comma-separated-values based files (.csv).

I obtained better results with a log file recorded without interruptions, or stops and that maintained a regular distance between its points.

To export a log file, generate one with GPSDash in the PDA (Log | Create New...) and then transfer it to a PC. Launch MapManager and select Log | Export to Google Earth... Hit Ok to the dialog box and Google Earth will be launched.

The Terrain checkbox is turned off in Google Earth so you can see the exported track and it will use the altitude information from your log file. The result will depend on how well your chip handles it.

To workaround the altitude issue, GPSDash 2.5x includes a new option under the GPS menu for Geoid Separation. That will use an altitude correction value provided by some receivers. This correction can then be added or subtracted from the one obtained from the receiver. You will need to figure out if your receiver provides this correction value or not to use this feature.

You can use any image to generate a map for GPSDash and the website provides a tutorial about how to import maps from Google Earth. If you follow the tutorial using Map Manager, make sure you select Tools | Coordinates | WGS84 | DD.DDDD before setting the references to an exported image. Also re-check the map coordinates by moving the mouse over it and checking the status bar before using it in the field.

GPSDash 2.5x

You can now lock the dashboard items to avoid making unintended changes and measure distances with a new Ruler tool. First stop any log you might be recording, then in the Map tab hit the Ruler once. Then tap the map in two or more points. Tap the ruler again and it will display the distance covered between those points.

And for Sirf-based receivers you can now use "warm start" to improve the time to obtain a lock with the GPS receiver (called in previous versions Hot Connect).

If you haven't checked GPSDash yet, now is a good time to try it out (23 Euros for a new license). If you already got it, the upgrade is worth its price.

News Industry

In a side note, it is quite educating to follow the "creation of news" over the Web. As an "editor" your job is to filter the echo from the original signal to get to its source. And this is particularly important in the blogsphere.

Chances are that a Press Release covering the new product, service or event was paid for and makes into the printed press (and their websites). You can also read about rehashed PR's that didn't cause enough traction when originally distributed in the market.

The News Agencies like Reuters and Associated Press (AP) are the main feeding ground for everyone, including Public Relations companies that are eager to distribute their "news".

An interesting trend here is the series of articles by Anick Jesdanun covering map providers that get new titles on each publication and repeat themselves around the main companies that either want to get into the market or are already there.

At the end you might really consider what makes into the news, why and who gains with that.

Friday, January 20, 2006

OpenSource GPS

GPSWorld magazine published on its January issue the first article of a series on the OpenSource GPS project covering the hardware side (the software will be covered in the February 06 issue).

If you are interested there are quite a few ports of the original open source software to other GPS receivers and platforms.

Check also this blog for some GPS hacks. Despite the profusion of ads there are some pretty interesting GPS projects (including aerophotography) and links to other sites like GPS Spoofing, a receiver built from scratch at Ghetto-GPS, and mod-ing a cheap product to build a GPS receiver.

Tracking, Tracking

According to Red Herring, Verizon Wireless will soon make available for the Migo phone from LG Electronics a tracking service for kids called Chaperone based on software developed by AutoDesk (who has a whole Location Based Services division now). The article also mentions LBS growth without differentiating between real GPS and Location based services.

New Scientist tracked a patent by Nokia for a "distress beacon" device that can transmit photos, audio and location after pressing "a recessed panic button [that] triggers a pre-recorded emergency message [...]".

And some folks are getting really worried with NAIS (National Animal Identification System) a project from the US Dept of Agriculture that will require all livestock to be tracked by carrying RFID tags and providing GPS data during transportation.

But you can also be less paranoid and track the migration pattern of antelopes to figure out if they still can get where they want with so much development around them.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Google Earth Discoveries

Today was hard to keep track of things, internal GPS went haywire thanks to Google Earth and the slew of data it is helping to generate. First there was the discovery of Ogle Earth, a blog dedicated to GE by Stefan Geens that shares tons of great material.

From there I jumped to TrackerGE and NMEA2KML, tools still in beta that generates .kml files from GPS signals that can be displayed by Google Earth as a moving map. These are some among other efforts along the same lines.

Also rediscovered the redesigned website of GPSVisualizer by Adam Shneider which now can help generate .kml files used by Google Earth plus a web interface to GpsBabel tools.

Then after running into a version of Opera Mini for the i870 Motorola phone I got distracted trying to get it to work on the i415 which kept failing for lack of memory.

Navizon & GeoTags

Finally I was able to get back to my original track and talk about the latest version of Navizon which brings location-based comments as we've seen with HereCast. Version 1.3 adds a new tag to the PocketPC app through which comments can be made to create a tag associated to a geographic location or GeoTag.

You will need to uninstall the previous version before installing the new one which will also include SQLCE 2.0. You can create tags at the location (after obtaining a GPS fix or location information from WiFi) or at your own account page at Navizon's website. But I couldn't see tags from other people last I tried. You can control the radius around which tags alerts should popup and how often a search for new tags should be made.

The issue I see here, which is the same brought up by GISUser on his blog is that we need to start talking about Open Data. Shared structured data with a common interface for use by different client & server apps. Navizon can be a client, as PlaceLab and A2B. Wigle.net already carries the best wireless database available, GeoUrl 2.0 comes back and is picking up speed fast with location data. "WikiTags" or similar effort to keep a single (replicable database) of comments, stories, reviews, notes about particular geographic locations plus photos. A common travel diary shared among all of us.

[Update] But the folks from Navizon seen to be on top of their game about this too.

Traffic Conditions

If you have JavaScript enabled in your browser, you might be able to see the current traffic conditions for some Highways in the SF Bay Area (Hwy 17 & 85 where the Jam Factor for Southbound seems to be stuck around 4) at the bottom of the right navigation bar on this page. That thanks to free "magnets" from Traffic.com. Just pick the style, area, highways and you will get a code snippet that can be added to your own webpage.

If you sign up for a mytraffic page (in a different account) you can also create up to 9 "drives" and 6 custom reports by providing the begining and the end of a road. You can also sign for SMS alerts for your cell phone, mobile & desktop e-mail messages and RSS feeds. All of it, apparently for free. The money is being made with other offers as described by this article from the Boston Globe.

Monday, January 16, 2006

3dTracking: GPS tracks on Google Earth & Google Local

I love when someone reads your mind and comes up with exactly what you are about to look for! With the whole mashups scene cooking I start to wonder if there was something that I could use to upload a .gpx or .log file with GPS waypoints and have them mapped on Google Local. Well, now you have. And free!

I did ran into several other ways to accomplish similar results but nothing as easy and simple. 3dTracking is making GPS tracking incredible easy. First you create an account, just type a new username and password (can it get any simpler?). Then download the client software. Currently you can install to a PocketPC, or Symbian phone running Java.

I choose to install the .cab file on a PocketPC 2003 PDA (I will try with the i415 later on and report back, or if you did get it to work let us know). The minimalist app let you select the COM port for your GPS receiver, how often you want to save a position and upload the data to the server. Don't wait for the red bar to go away by itself, hit Start and it soon will lock in with the "visible" satellites.

Ten seconds seems like way too often if you are walking, I got a bit too many points. You can choose to send the data manually as you might not have a wireless connection available in the interval alloted for uploads.

The app seemed pretty robust, timing out when no connection was available or reporting back that the upload was successful or not. It also kept good connection with the GPS receiver reporting how many satellites it had a lock with.

Back to a browser, check your account. You can select a time interval for the uploaded points, the data will be kept available on the server. Under "Live" you can see the last 20 positions of data uploaded to the server. Google Local maps gets displayed by default. As usual you can select the satellite view or combine both.

If you select Google Earth and have it installed, a "static.kml" file will get loaded and you will be able to watch a fly over to the area you just tracked. Way cool. The only thing is that your account name will be displayed on each waypoint. At the navigation bar you can check the speed (if you seeing speed always zero, upgrade to version 1.01 for a fix to this bug) you had that you had at that time. If you are walking you won't get much from it but biking or driving will get you something.

Tres cool for a very welcome service!

GPS2CAD

For a bit more ($395 for a single user license) you can now plot GPS data for Garmin and other receivers in AutoCAD with GPS2CAD. It will also let you display data on TerraServer and other free map services. A trial download is available.

MapAdvisor 3.0 & SuperWaba

Before adding MapAdvisor to the list of misses for '05 I decided to give it one more try (15-days free trial available). MapAdvisor let you use aerial photos and topo maps as moving maps in both Palm and PocketPC devices.

In order to run it on a PocketPC, you first need to install SuperWaba, which will act as a Virtual Machine for the MapAdvisor Java-like code. Use the installer included within the downloaded trial (version 4.5). MapAdvisor won't work with the current version of SuperWaba.

You can use its companion .NET-based Windows program QuakeMap as a way to obtain, and generate maps for MapAdvisor.

While running it for the first time QuakeMap will ask for your zip code and provide the corresponding map from your surrounding area. You then select "tiles" to be exported to the PocketPC device.

Select a rectangle area with the mouse and then click over it, the selected tiles are written to the maps directory on the PC. Copy them to the mapmaps8 folder in your PPC device.

The freeware version allows for only 3x3 tiles to be exported thru the Map Wizard. A full license (U$9.99) will give you ten times more.

Installing & Running

Install both SuperWaba 4.5 and MapAdvisor 3.0 to their default directories in the PocketPC device. SuperWaba won't run if installed to a different location. And I didn't have much luck with MapAdvisor either.

You will notice that thanks to SuperWaba, MapAdvisor will have a very peculiar look & feel. Without the visual controls you are used to with regular WinCE applications. And it might fit in better among Palm users.

MapAdvisor will first ask for the location of the map directory with its MapManager module. Select the corresponding tab (Memory, Card) and the directory where you have the maps copied to. If you had them copied to the mamaps8 directory in the SD/CF Card, select it and hit "Open zoom8 map directory".

This should display the image you generated with QuakeMap. You can zoom in by selecting different values in the 2nd combobox where Top is displayed by default (2m for example). You can also use the device buttons to zoom and browse your map image.

First configure your GPS receiver under Menu | GPS | Configure GPS... Give it a try by hitting "Start test". Then "Stop, Save and Close" to go back to the main screen.

Now select FollowGPS in the third combobox at the top of the screen. You should have a cross pointing your location in the map. If you got this far you can try creating a track for a moving map. This is where my original try had gone sour. But this time it somehow worked.

Open the menu and select GPS | Start Track... Then select GPS | Track log prefs... Select the interval in seconds and distance you want to log your change in position. You can also pick different colors for the display. Save your changes and after moving around you might be able to see your trail in the map.

To save a trail select Menu | File | Save track pdb... Pick a new database or use the default one provided. You can keep databases of waypoints too (.pdb is the default database format used by Palm devices and supported by SuperWaba).

Because of the way SuperWaba Runtime was configured it will take over your PPC and you won't be able to run any other application simultaneously with MapAdvisor, including access to hardware buttons. You will need to Exit from the program first.

MapAdvisor imports/exports data to/from .GPX files. The full license of MapAdvisor 3.0 ($19.99) will also give you access to historial earthquake data and pre-loading of aerial/topo tiles.

SuperWaba

Like but not the same: SuperWaba uses approach and language similar to Java but is a product on its own. You will need to write code using their own SDK (free registration required for download).

"Superwaba was created in the beginning of 2000 by Guilherme Campos Hazan (Guich) and derived from another open-source project called Waba (from WabaSoft)."
The Community version is free for runtime usage. For development use you need to pay a subscription for their SDK. Current version 5.5 has runtimes available for Palm, PocketPC, SmartPhones and Symbian. There is a library for GPS development: WabaGPS, a port of javaGPS that "provides communication to a serial port using NMEA protocol".

Saturday, January 14, 2006

GPS News

Galileo sends its first signals. "If you had receiving equipment, you could have picked it up anywhere on Earth within visibility of the satellite [...]".

Motorola invests on Global Locate chip maker specialized in A-GPS (Assisted-GPS) and holder of key patents in GPS and its Worldwide Reference Network (WWRN).

Rakon, a New Zealand based company specialized in crystals and oscillators announced the smallest ever GPS receiver (photo).

Paul McHugh sumarizes for the Chronicle his 40-day, 400 miles kayak trip along the Oregon and California Coasts.

"[GPS] gave critical aid, guiding us around a reef [or when] swathed in heavy fog. But if the battery indicator showed power was on decline [Garmin 76C], it actually was in freefall. I learned to add fresh batteries as soon as any weakness was indicated. Recommendation: Coastal voyagers should become adept in GPS use, yet back up navigation with supplemental chart and compass [...]."
Unless you make use of a server-based map provider, you will at some point be confronted with map upgrades. With that in mind GM will now offer two maps upgrades for the Cadillac buyers (XLR Package). I'm guessing that this is pretty much included in its price.

Engadget is asking for GPS device or application nominations for its 2005 Engadget Awards.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Upgrade to PocketPC 2003

Somehow I thought that the Toshiba e755 that I bought used at eBay had Pocket 2002 in it. There are no splash screens that tell you right away what you are running or easy to spot versions that make some sense. But after looking for a ROM backup utility I figured out that this PDA already runs 2003 thanks to the previous owner who upgraded it.

Toshiba provided an upgrade CD for PocketPC 2002 users for a while. You can find it for sale as a download on eBay. But you won't need it as you will see below.

ROM Backup

My plan was to first make a backup of the existing ROM so that in case the ugprade failed I could revert it to the original ROM. There is such a tool for ROM backups: an utility called osLoader.

For PocketPC 2003, the version number that shows up after a soft reset is 2 00 06 0409. Which translates to boot loader version 2.00, OS version 6 and English Language. At the About screen you will see Version 4.20.1081 (build 13100).

The upgrade process involves flashing two files from a CF Card: the first is a boot loader (EBOOT.NB0), and the kernel image itself (KERNEL.NB0).

Here are the directions about how to create a ROM backup and the corresponding binary images. It covers both the Toshiba e740 and e75x and also shows how to restore them. The ROM Backup utility writes blocks of 4Mbytes each. You have to combine them and use an Hex Editor to remove unnecessary areas.

Check this site for a detailed map of the Win CE 3.x ROM. The original instructions from Toshiba explain the flashing process thru USB/Cradle and CF card. The whole story is covered in this thread (original link moved, this one now?)

And if you ever want try running Linux on the Toshiba, check this site.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

PocketPC Survival Kit III

If your PocketPC has wireless you might want to try using PocketPCRSS, a free RSS reader for feeds like this one. After installing it you will see an entry added to your Today list.

Launch the program itself after obtaining a connection to an access point and select Site Manager. Click Add and type for example:

http://jeepx.blogspot.com/atom.xml
Hit Add and wait for it to connect and download the available posts. Click Ok and you are done. Tap over any entry and you will be able to read this blog and any other on your PDA. You can also use a cradle and ActiveSync to transfer posts.

If you ever had to play with the Windows registry, you know that regedit32.exe is a pretty handy tool. For PocketPC you can use PHM Registry, a free editor for your registry. The author's website was down recently, but you can easily find it for download in other sites. Besides letting you edit/add/delete keys and its values you can also use it to backup & restore your registry.

Ever wondered how to capture the screen of you PocketPC application? Wait no more. Pocket Screen Capture is a neat and simple free utility that does just that. The only drawback is that all captures will always be written to your /temp directory. But it is not nice to complain about freeware. Thanks guys!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

GPS & Privacy

It is easy to predict that 2006 will be the year when the P in GPS will sound as in Privacy. The amount of tracking products and services is growing exponentially.

You can track cars, motorcycles, dogs, kids (with cutesy phones too), teens, (did I say teens?), workers, spouses, sex offenders and any other assets.

Some important issues also will have to be discussed like what is the rule for access to a cell phone location information during serious emergencies.

DMV wants it in your car, States want it to track sex offenders and charge you more taxes. And you will be able to have a rental car with a tracking device in your next trip.

Unions want it turned off and ACLU applauded a ruling in a Washington-based case but a Federal Judge just ruled that State police can use GPS to track you and your car. Without a warrant. And here are some more thoughts for food. [Illustration by Bob Staake]

GPS Games

Location-based services are picking up and as this article in the current issue of the Spectrum magazine points out so are the location-based games, like RayGun.

GeoCaching is the most popular. But you need to be careful... GeoDashing is picking up and in a similar vein is the Degree Confluence project where "the goal [...] is to visit each of the latitude and longitude integer degree intersections in the world, and to take pictures at each location."

GpsGames.org hosts several GPS-related games including GeoDashing, GPSGolf and MinuteWar. GPS Drawing offers some pretty impressive results as you can see here in their Gallery. WindSurfers also have their dedicated GPS game. MIT has an augmentation reality project where you can help save the environment playing a detective.

British cab drivers could be "played" with a Monopoly Live version of the Hasbro game as covered by Wired at the time. Remember Tron? In GPS::Tron "the players move in real space, they are tracked by GPS and their position influences their position in the game."

GPS phones, Location services & MMOGs

Boost Mobile offers two GPS-based games from Blister Enterprises for their Nextel/Motorola phones: SwordFish and Torpedo Bay. Check for the supported models from Motorola/Nextel on their corresponding FAQ's.

For Nokia phones one of the original MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) RPG games, UnderCover 2 can also be played with Bluetooth GPS receivers and/or location services from your phone provider. And before that you had and still have BotFighters 2, developed by the Swedish DayDream to be played thru a WAP browser or a J2ME-based Java client.

Wired covered also Mogi, an even earlier game developed for Japanese phones. Here is a reasonably updated list of games available for mobile phones.

GPS enabled Game Console

Gizmondo sells now in U.S. a handheld gaming console that can be used to play Colors, their only GPS-enabled game. They also make the Gizmondo Navigator which runs CoPilot software for navigation. Currently out of stock, the Gizmondo Silver with Smart Adds sells for $229.

[Update: Feb/7/2006: But things don't look too promising for Gizmondo operations in Europe. And BusinessWeek ran an interview with Peter and Robert Sprogis, the management team of Your World Games on MMMRPG and GPS-based games a while ago.]

Sunday, January 08, 2006

GPS Watch

After writing about ActiveTrace I realized that it just doesn't make much sense to carry a phone or PDA while you are running or exercising in some fashion. Unless you are hiking when usually you will be carrying some stuff anyway, or geocaching & geodashing obviously. A friend mentioned a while ago Suunto and their cool clocks.

The X9i includes barometer, 3D compass, 3 feet resolution GPS and an altimeter which will probably give you a much better reading than receivers using Sirf chips. You can upload your waypoints to a PC and analize them with Suunto Track Manager. It sells for $399 at Amazon.

[Update: Gizmondo covered its download software Track Exporter.]

Garmin also launched this week new models of their ForeRunner product: the 205 for US$267 (image at right) and 305 for US$376 which looks like a watch. Garmin also provides software to upload and manage waypoints on a PC.

[Update: Casio has a GPS model available too, the GPR 100. And it used to make another called PathFinder that had an interesting format but doesn't seem to be available any longer.]

Tracking Pets

Well, it is really here. Now you can for only $349.99 keep track of your lovely ones with GlobalPetFinder, a New York based company. Dogs I mean. Cats might like the next rev. Put the water-resistent GPS-enabled collar on Fido, hit some buttons to set a "fence" and use your cell to call the "command center". From that point on you will be able to know if Bones jumped the fence just yet. Saving packages also available.


Source: GlobalPetFinder

Thursday, January 05, 2006

HereCast: Your Virtual Bulletin-Board

Wireless is ubiquitous, access points cover whole cities and you walk around with the result of technological convergences: a mobile device that is a cross of a MP3 player, GPS, cell phone, camera, video, PDA and everything else you want to carry around in your pocket.

And let's say that you like chocolate. A lot. And this great store has some special tart that you just can't live without, but only rarely they get it. So you happen to be walking by it one day but you don't want to stop and ask one more time if they have it. But the store happens to provide feeds about their shipments.

So you decide to subscribe to any message the store sends out thru those feeds. And that day while walking by it your wireless PDA recognizes the store's location and pops up one. You get the message about your favorite chocolate being available that day, right now, right there.

Magic? Near future guess? Nope. You have the whole technology available for use today.

HereCast, provides a location-based service and the client software for your PDA to make this happen giving you a glimpse of times to come. LBS's are cropping up and research sponsored by Intel and done at PlaceLab already shows where this might be going. Navizon already implements some of its vision.

And this provides a proof that the idea of location-based services can work. But you might have a hard time convincing someone of the usability and convenience of these services.

Upload places first

You first create an account at HereCast.com and download its client software. It installs on the PocketPC as an item in the Today screen. If it recognizes a "location" that it knows about, it displays a line saying that you are near it.

At this point there aren't that many known "places" at the HereCast database, when close to an open access point you can upload one by providing its full qualified name, for example: United States, California, Santa Cruz, Pacific Ave, Lulu's Carpenter, Ground Floor. With that, Lulu's becomes known and the client software will be able to recognize it while you walk by it.

PlaceLab uses the wireless access point database collected by Wigle.net for its research, this is where HereCast could get a jumpstart.

HereSay

Now let's say that you want to be notified when you walk by Lulu's about their new coffee drinks. You log into your HereCast account, go to the Database Browser and at the entry for Lulu's you select HereSay under services. You have the choice to receive messages or RSS Feeds.

Now, this part you shouldn't need to cover but because Lulu's doesn't really sends mail about itself yet you give it a help and just to see if this thing really works you send a message from the Lulu's entry at the Database Browser saying that you really liked their Cappucino Ultimo, a dark triple shot that will leave you awake for better part of the day.

Finally, you go to Pacific Ave. and check the HereCast client that might be saying "I don't recognize this place" or that "You were last seen at home". Wait until you have your PDA connected to their access point. After a while you see a little ballon popping up with your message. Location-based. From there you can load the corresponding URL to leave your own message.

Now imagine the possibilities here: you can leave reviews on a restaurant, movies, shows, stores, deals announcements. Find out about the history of a building and its events. You have a virtual bulletin-board and whatever you can make out of it. You just got a message at 36.98N, -121.93W.

ActiveTrace: burn your batteries

Vito Technologies is distributing ActiveTrace as mentioned here. The idea is that you can track your physical activities by creating tracks for your byciclying, running, skying, and other activities with ActiveTrace using data calculated from GPS readings. ActiveTrace provides a slew of statistics based on your track data. You can also pause a track and restart it later.

To start with it hit close in the activation screen (or buy an activation key for $29.99) and you will be able to try it out for free if your exercise lasts less than 30 minutes. The trial won't let you record for more than that requiring you to create a new track.

The default settings are in metric system, but you can switch it under Menu | Settings | Navigation | Measuring system. There are still some words in German in its Help which might indicate its development group origins, but the product definitively shows signs of an 1.0 release.

Tracking it


Also under settings you will need to scan and test your GPS receiver. It didn't pick the GPS without going thru these steps. Start a track by selecting Menu | New... and typing a track name and prefered storage location. By default it will assume Biking as your exercise but you can set your weight (80 kg default value) and activity under Menu | General | Statistics.

Now after having obtained a fix with your GPS receiver select Menu | Resume to start recording data for your new track. Pinpoints can be added to a track (waypoints). From the main view you can check your current speed, acceleration and altitude (which might not be that meaningful after all). With the track under way you can select among four different view: statistics, track, altitude and speed. The last two are pretty similar to what GPSDash offers. And track offers a view like that from GPS MeterPDA but without the same precision. To obtain a better drawing of your track you can try using the filter settings Menu | Settings... | Navigation | Filter between simple and smart to set a threshold to avoid errors while reading values from the GPS receiver, but that will drain more current from your battery. ActiveTrace also runs on SmartPhones and it is supposed to let you send and receive SMS.

You might want to try it out on your regular activity to check the statistics provided by ActiveTrace and see if they sound reasonable, including amount of calories burned, distance covered, time, speed averages, slopes, and lift angles (whatever that means). It is just that seeing the irregular tracking drawing you realize that you need measurements in a reasonable range so that they can be of any value, but for that you will be required to run your PDA/Smartphone with the smart filter set which will cause your battery to drain a lot faster. Give it a run.

Innovation x Gadgetry: SkyScout & FlyOver

CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2006 is under way in Vegas so that you won't suffer from lack of choices when trying to decide where to expend your money in your next gadget. Buying really innovative products might make the difference between keeping your money around for education, research and development or sending it overseas for cheap cloned manufacturing. But the economy will flow either way.

Pointing stars

SkyScout combines several technologies, including GPS to help those interested in the sky and its stars and other objects but overwhelmed by its size.
"Put simply, the device knows where you are on Earth, the precise angle at which you are holding it, and exactly what celestial object is in its direct path at the time and day of the year you are using it. It also works in reverse, helping you locate an object using directional arrows inside its viewer. A multi-media planetarium-like experience then tells you all about the objects you’re looking at. It is portable, rugged and compact, and requires no set-up or calibration whatsoever."

The technology developed by the Irvine (CA) based Yamcon "combines data from 3-axis sensors measuring the magnetic and gravitational fields of the Earth, along with GPS and a substantial celestial database, SkyScout Technology enables a hand held device to accurately identify and/or locate nearly every object in the sky visible to the naked eye."

According to Celestron's press-release [SkyScout is] "about the size of a camcorder and weighs less than 16 ounces." SkyScout will be available for sale for $399.99 on March 20, 2006 according to Amazon.

FlyOver

Now that thieves are going after GPS devices installed in vehicles, you might want to get a real teaser with 3D bird's eye view over real time image maps. But for now only in Japan where 3DVU is testing the 3rd generation of its products. Hopefully some entrepreneur will pick the Israeli-based company for a deal in the US market.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Free Traffic Updates, GPS to Track Jogging & Elephants Diet

Peace in '06 and here are some GPS and other related news: TANN (Traffic Advisory News Network) provides free and subscription based services for traffic updates in several U.S. cities.

PocketGear sells TrafficEdge, a wrapper for TANN website produced by EdgeQ for $9.99. You can try it for 15 days for free. You will need a working wireless connection to use with it.

Besides maps of traffic conditions you can also check webcams like those from Kron4 for the Bay Area. One interesting note is that while running on a PDA in low memory conditions, TrafficEdge launches IE to display a map, you can try its corresponding URL to check for the Bay Area conditions.

Vito Technologies launched ActiveTrace, a GPS-based app for PocketPC's that can be used to track your physical activities. Download the .zip file instead of the .exe if you want to give it a try (the .exe had a German version instead of the English one). Connect a GPS receiver, configure it and start a new track. Review coming soon.

Scientific American published an article on how GPS was used to track the movements of elephants during two years to help study their eating habits. The study also showed how much space the elephants need so by avoiding contact with humans while looking for food they will have better chances of survival.

And Anick Jesdanun from the Associated Press continues covering the mapping industry. There are lots of different versions around from the previous article.