Friday, March 31, 2006

"The Last Page Of The Internet"

You can stop surfing now. Just go to it, thanks to WebMapper.

Locative Media: Artistic Future

If you are interested in figure out where the whole Locative Media idea and movement started take a peek at "Beyond Locative Media" by Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis. It does go over Ben's HeadMap Manifesto and picks this line from it:

"Cell phones become internet enabled and location aware, everything in the real world gets tracked, tagged, barcoded and mapped."
And here a nice summary for the movement:
"Broadly speaking, locative media projects can be categorized under one of two types of mapping, either annotative—virtually tagging the world—or phenomenological—tracing the action of the subject in the world."
And a motif for the movement:
"Locative media strives, at least rhetorically, to reach a mass audience by attempting to engage consumer technologies, and redirect their power."
Which sums up a critical view of the current state of disconnectedness in the words of Coco Fusco:
"In the name of a politics of global connectedness, artists and activists too often substitute an abstract 'connectedness' for any real engagement with people in other places or even in their own locale."

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Going to Banff? Try a GPS Guided Tour

[Update: New companies listed at this post].

Or Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver, New Zealand... The coverage map for British Columbia and Alberta shows what is currently available and what is planned. The Canadian-based GPS Tour Guide developed and distributes the product/service.

"The hardware, a handheld computer running Microsoft Windows Pocket PC, will be rented to tourists in Western Canada at $49 CAN for the first day and $35 CAN for each additional day."
Install the PDA to the windshield, plug the AC adapter and turn it on. Select a tour and check the comments in English or German coming out from the FM radio according to the G&M story below.
"The tours are 'themed' to be organized and logical rather than just a random selection of facts and figures. There is a mixture of human history, natural history, current issues, quirky tales, and more. You will enjoy a far more fulfilling experience than someone who is traveling without the guide."
Reservations are suggested and you can also pick the PDA at Vancouver and Calgary airports. Globe & Mail has the story.

New Zealand

Kruse developed a similar system for travelers to New Zealand. According to their National Tourism Organisation website:
"Auckland-based Jonathan Kruse has developed a talking tour guide based on GPS. Kruse's systems are available for hire: plug it into the cigarette lighter and drive around New Zealand listening to recorded narrations."
Check the current coverage and sample comments. Wired wrote about it.

Montgomery, Alabama

But these are not the first GPS guided tours to come up. The Montgomery (Alabama) Area Transit Systems (MATS) launched about a year ago the Lightning Route developed by IntelliTours and Spotlight Mobile.

The tour of Montgomery includes "audio narration at 45 locations around downtown, recounting Civil War and Civil Rights histories". Montgomery is the place where "in 1954, Martin Luther King accepted the pastorale of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church" according to his biography at the Nobel Prize website.

S.F. & Downtown Seattle

We covered the GoCars from Frisco a while ago and it seems that Gray Line also has walking tours for Downtown Seattle.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

HeadMap: Visionary Future of LBS

Before we get flooded with location-based advertisements head straight into the HeadMap Manifesto. A 100-page PDF with quite a punch for your neurons. Not news, but that doesn't really count when one is trying to design the future or just "find sadness in New York".

GPS Hacks

If you feel like performing a little B&E with your old receiver, check this article on how to add an external antenna to a GPS unit.

It is based on a previous mod for the Talon GPS, sold by Rand McNally for the Palm III a while ago but not available currently and probably hard to find nowadays [There is at least one on eBay going on by Apr 1st].

You might try with a "suitable receiver" as suggested, but as the comments to the article made clear, a bit tad risky.

GameBoy, Explorist, Meridian

For a better set of hacks check this site which describes how to use GPS with the GameBoy Advance (GBA), creating custom maps for the Magellan Explorist and tons of good materials on Garmin tools and receivers plus utilities including the shareware AddMagMap a tool you can use to "add custom objects to Magellan MapSend maps".

Great site!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Oregon Tax: GPS used to track Gas Usage?

Another reason not to have GPS in your car? Oregon is studying the use of GPS data to tax gas at the pump.

Tricky. Well, the Brits had some other ideas about this too.

Check the article at the N.Y. Times and the comments from this post at the DailyTech.

GPS TV

On the footsteps of Sirf's announcement that it had acquired TrueSpan, now Mio is getting ready to produce handhelds capable of displaying TV brodcasts, either from DVB-T (digital video broadcasting-terrestrial) or DVB-H (DVB-handheld):

"The screen will be divided into two parts, one for GPS navigation and the other for receiving mobile TV, [according to Mio's president Samuel Wang]"
But this won't be a walk in the park as explained on this article from EE Times Asia (free registration). Meanwhile just imagine the possibilities (but now stay tuned for these ads from our sponsors...).

From DigiTimes

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

N.Y. Taxi Cabs say no to GPS

I did say that 2006 was going to be the year when the P in GPS would spell Privacy. Guess I wasn't too far off.

NY cabbies are protesting the use of GPS in their taxis (yes, they have to pay for it to be installed from their own pockets) alleging discrimination and possible misuse of the data.

Weird times.

"Can you track me now?"

To substantiate my claim that if you have an A-GPS cell phone turned on it can be tracked here is a recent article on the subject that sheds some more light on it. The point being that you don't need to be on a call for that.

If you try to add things up you will notice that something is missing: remember the case when Sprint didn't want to give the location of a cell phone sitting in a hijacked car with a 10-month old baby inside.

Then read the N.Y. Judge rulling about why he granted permission for cell tracking:

"Gorenstein [...] said that because the cell phone user's location is only available to police when a call is in progress, and because the location information is only a rough estimate, such tracking is permissible under the Fourth Amendment."
If your provider is selling, sharing, opening up, doing whatever it isn't saying with its PDE (Position Determining Entity) data, the server that keeps the tabs on your phone, it is a good time to ask about it.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Interesting acquisition by Sirf

Dealt TrueSpan, "which makes chips enabling cell phones to receive TV signals" as announced by Red Herring.

Loggers find GPS

Wood loggers, from Maine are starting to discover it. As Josh Platt of the Kennebec County Soil and Water Conservation District points out:

"Because if they cut on some guy's land," Platt said, "he's not going to be happy."

As printed by the Kennebec Journal

Friday, March 17, 2006

PocketPC Phones with GPS

msmobiles.com published an article on currently available models in Europe. Among them new releases from Mitac with the Mio line and E-Ten. Check this feature comparison table.

Notice the presence of a new series from HP, the hw6900 after rumours that HP would be stopping the production (and distribution) of its smartphone line. Guess not.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Need Tracking? Just keep the cell on

Lawmakers while pushing for legislation to force sex predators and gang members to wear GPS devices may not realize that anyone using a cell phone can be tracked down anytime someone with enough authority decides to. Like this Federal Judge in NY.

Just watch how Bruce Willis character gets cornered at NY's Chinatown in "16 Blocks". It is totally possible. That particular i530 model from Motorola, using Nextel service does include a standalone GPS receiver from Sirf. But any A-GPS enabled phone will do. And even better. Just keep it on.

[Update: And here is a good example to go with it.]

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Great Ad by AutoDesk

Page 9 of GeoPlace's GeoWorld magazine has a fantastic Ad by AutoDesk GIS products. I which I could give you an URL to a PDF. But you can request the current issue to GeoPlace.com.

WongDoody worked on this campaign and they had the image up on their website for a while. Google shows a thumbnail of it.

Great mag, btw.

Wrist Wearable runs Linux/WinCE with GPS

Eurotech from Italy announced a "Wrist-Worn Personal Computer for indoor and outdoor tasks" equipped with a GPS receiver, BlueTooth and Wireless. The PDF specs mention a "tilt and dead reckoning" system that recognizes if the user has been moving or not. The company is targetting "Emergency, Rescue and Security" personel. Pretty scifi.

First seen at LinuxDevices

Monday, March 13, 2006

Google Mars doesn't do latitude/longitude?

Or at least, not with the same basic location query syntax as the one supported by maps.google.com does. Any idea of what the syntax might be? In case it is there.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Want to understand about Assisted-GPS & LBS?

It ain't easy I will tell you that.

I wish I had read this article from GPS World when I got started down this path [Wireless Choices for LBS, by Arnold Gun and Kirk Burroughs from Qualcomm [PDF] add to this some papers from the Qualcomm site and the whole thing will get into perspective and start to make sense:

  1. E911 drove the whole process
  2. First need: someone calls, we need to know where he/she is.
  3. You need to keep both data and voice channels open.
  4. Architecture designed to fit need in #2: the sequence starts at the phone provider level, from the control plane.
  5. Enter LBS, Location-Based Services. "Ok, we implement E911, what do we get?"
  6. Ok, deal. User starts the sequence asking for his/her location, no voice channel can be used, only data. There you get the user plane.
If you look at the chipset used by the Sanyo MM7400, you will find out about a MSM6100 chip from Qualcomm working with a RFR6125 which implements GPS radio-frequency capabilities to measure satellites signals in the Mobile Set (MS). But not the whole thing. The phone does some work and sends pseudoranges to a Positioning Determining Server [PDE] server (in CDMA).

Some crunching is done at this server with triangulation from cell towers and who knows what. After that is repeated a good number of times, the MS gets a "fix". If you care about this, check some previous posts on the subject. A lot of details involved to make the whole picture.

Unless you have access to a Location Server from your phone provider on your cell, you won't have location information available. Period. Except on Motorola iDen phones which in some cases might make use of the backend SirfLoc servers if they are available but that won't preclude the phones to obtain a real fix because they actually include a full GPS receiver. And in this case Nextel is keeping the backend servers (and the API) open for access.

Human Pacman: Virtual + True GPS

While trying to imply what the concept of a wearable GPS could result into, a young fella close by mentioned: "they already did it". I was saying something like: "the idea is to match your virtual location with a real one".

You wearing a GPS-enabled jacket and goggles with some sort of display formed in such a way that you could read and see images. How do you control your movement? GPS does. You and the other players run the labirint and you follow it.

Maybe not exactly as described above but see yourself as PacMan, after something, away from others. Pick your place in the screen showing up in your goggles (no, not the other one), move around this gameboard, define a strategy, watch the game, of loss, and gain. Kinda sounds like Real life.

Six Degrees Apart Niche Blogs

Some recommended readings on niche blogs.

  • Movogo or Mobile Video on the Go hasn't been updated recently but published pretty good articles on "wearable, geo-located videography on the net".
  • NaviGadget covers GPS Navigation for cars and planes including news on the latest gadgets out there.
  • Rich Owins, author of GPS Mapping which teaches you how to do your own maps has lots of good information on Gps TrackLog, specially for Garmin users and products.

Indiana Judge drops GPS evidence

No warrant was obtained beforehand by the police in this case where a GPS device was used to track a suspect.

But hangon, how exactly should this work?

"Sir, this is a warrant showing that we will install a tracking device in your vehicle to log your driving activities in the next 72 hours."

TomTom finds your buddy

TomTom announced new services during CeBit including Buddy Tracker where "authorised TomTom users can locate each other and send instant messages" and preferred locations. This service requires a BlueTooth enabled Smartphone and works with TomTom models GO 910, GO 710 and GO 510.

Open Source phones?

Well, I'm not the only one that feels really constrained by the current locked-up state of existing phones and their respective API's. Check this article for some pointers and a phone design that might become real in a couple of years.

Magnetic storms might interfere with GPS signals

This came up a while ago during the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco and might indicate that it will be better if you keep your internal compass in working conditions when GPS signals start to get affected by changes in the plasmasphere or "plasma cloud surrounding Earth above the ionosphere" by solar activity. Check the article at ScienceDaily and this one from Space for more. Picture from NASA/NSF/MIT.

[Update: And the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is predicting that a big one is coming pretty soon.]

Telescopes and GPS

To make even easier to find stars and other celestial objects in the sky, Meade announced a new telescope: the LX90GPS is equipped with an Autostar controller and a Sony GPS receiver that helps the telescope align itself by figuring out where and when it is located, how high, its true North, plus locating two stars from its database. With that it sets itself up without much effort by its owner.

Previous models equipped with GPS receivers include the LX200R and RCX400. You probably won't learn to find many stars or constellations by yourself with GOTO type telescopes but it is quite amazing that a telescope got to this level of autonomy. Check under Goto Drivers on this article of the Astronomy Magazine for more details on the operation of this kind of telescope.

SkyScout

A while ago Celestron published a more detailed list of the features and specs of SkyScout, a truly amazing device by its innovative qualities. The idea is that you can point to the sky and have a description of what you are looking at. The internal GPS plus its star database makes Astronomy pretty interesting. It also allows you to upgrade its firmware through an USB interface and it includes a slot for an SD card for an optional "Sky Tour" with voice presentations. Initially planned for March, Celestron now says that it should be available by May 2006.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Wearable GPS for a Virtual World

Wow, now you have it.

At CeBit a group of German companies including Interactive Wear got together and created the next generation of wearable gadgets starting with a "multimedia backpack with remote control functions for a video camera", then a jacket ”with integral GPS, GSM, Bluetooth and mp3 capabilities" and finally an "Augmented Reality Vest which is used by the automotive industry to link the virtual world with the real world."

Great, if you get lost in the real world you can still find yourself in the virtual one. Just imagine the possibilites. Wow.

Qualcomm GPS API restricted on Sprint phones

While trying the Garmin Mobile on a Sanyo CDMA phone equipped with Qualcomm Mobile Station Modem (MSM) chipsets I decided to look a little deeper into what's under the hood on this particular phone.

The MM7400 offers quite a punch for a phone with features that go way beyond what one would be used to from a plain, no-frills device. Streaming video, good sound quality, A-GPS, voice, great quality display and ease of use which makes things always better.

My beef with phones start when you try to add more to it than what comes with it. The Motorola has a way in that now allows me to add even my own GPS-based apps to it. But Sprint has a much bigger lock around this phone. Let's get to it.

Qualcomm GPS API

First, Qualcomm makes available the specification of its GPS API on this site, just fill the form and you can download two PDF's: one that describes the GPS package and another with usage guidelines. From the second paper you get that behind the scenes Garmin Mobile makes two types of calls: one that uses the network data mostly and another that makes more use of the capabilities of the phone itself.

gpsOne, the group of technologies used by Qualcomm for its location-based services works through "cell network-based trilateration" which uses with CDMA [...] advanced forward link trilateration (AFLT)". It makes use of the user plane through TCP/IP.

Trying to simplify the process here you have a Mobile Set operating in two basic modes: MS-Assisted and MS-based and you basically depend on a PDE (Position Determining Entity) server like those provided by SnapTrack (a Qualcomm company) that helps the phone track the satellites position so it can obtain its first fix.

In MS-Assisted mode assistance data is sent to the phone from the location server for every fix causing a much higher volume of data but providing a great accuracy and really fast TTFF (Time To First Fix) in the other hand MS-based mode works better for an application that is tracking the device's location so it can display its position on a moving map for example and consequently minimizing the data traffic to the network.

Sprint PCS Location Services

So far so good. That's what Qualcomm made available now on the Sprint side if you try to download the SDK from the Developer site you will see right away that things won't be that easy.

Version 2.0 of the Sprint SDK (Launchpad) doesn't include the GPS piece of the Qualcomm API, it spelled out on the name of the zip file itself. According to a post to the Sprint Forum the current "SDK does not include support for Location APIs. Currently, these are available only to Sprint partners in location services or partner prospects for location services under a non-disclosure agreement [...]."

Sprint wants to recoup the money put in the investment necessary to upgrade its network, which makes sense. But remember that this whole process got started with the mandate for the E911 services. [In fact, this might be really the case here because the E911 tax should already be covering these costs.]

This one is an old post, which doesn't reflect the current state of things, it seems that at some point the (compiled version) of the GPS classes were being distributed in the Sprint SDK so that applications like the GpsTester described there could possibly work but the lock was added and the compiled classes removed from the SDK. But nowadays GpsTester fails probably because it is not signed by Sprint to make use of their location server. This way it fails to connect and run on the device.

Still, there is hope

I had to check about adding my own apps to the Sanyo and this time it wasn't that hard to find a way in (please refer to the legalese at the i860 post). This site allows you to upload a J2ME midlet by sending a SMS with a "jump code" that points to the .jar on a Sprint compatible OTA server. The site also shows how you can create your own server with PHP and MySQL. GPSTester got installed thru this process, but it didn't quite work.

Signed apps, like GMapViewer can be installed from the embedded web browser itself and this one worked just fine (didn't check the search funtions) but there is no GPS support.

Update: Alexander Pruss built a dummy version of QJAE that you can use to compile code that makes references to it. This way you can load it on a device but still depend on access to their PDE. Check comments for more and the next update.

Update: According to Alexander Pruss: "Sprint prohibits unauthorized use of their PDE, and prohibits editing _policy.txt on the handheld to enable the API. Since they own their PDE, they have the right to prohibit its use."

Their advice for anyone interested in GPS is to use the Nextel platform with true GPS phones. If Assisted-GPS is the way to go, then it is time to put together an OpenSource PDE with a protocol that anyone can use and talk to.

Looking elsewhere

And looking back at the beginning of this technology, here is an interesting piece of history on this article about oneGps and E911 implementation options with a reply from SnapTrack.

Guess the next step will be to check which other vendors SDK's that use Qualcomm's and Brew GPS API: Brew Devices By Manufacturer

And here are some pointers on Brew development at the DevX site:

Meanwhile let's go back to the iDen API and real GPS for a change.

MapQuest Opens its API

You can now use MapQuest data for your mashups. Check the Open Tools API page for details about registration and use. There is also a blog that covers the news on the Open API.

There is one example of its usage that I couldn't get past the resulting map image from its search. The mapshup should display bars, restaurants and future events but I didn't quite get it to work. Well, this looks like a real beta after all. One kinda gets used to pretty solid betas after Google & otherse decided to keep the warning forever.

Garmin Mobile

In September 2005 Garmin announced its navigation software by offering Garmin Mobile to Sprint PCS customers. It is currently available for the multimedia Sanyo CDMA phones (MM-5600, MM-7400, MM-7500, MM-8300 and MM-9000) in two versions. Both provide moving maps, location search and directions for addresses and POI's.

You can choose Garmin Mobile for US$9.99 a month and Mobile Lite for US$4.99 a month. Lite doesn't include voice prompted turn by turn guidance or automatic recalculation. Not sure if you need to interact to get a new route or if the feature isn't available at all. In either case, think that it is way better and safer to listen to directions instead of looking at a screen and that recalculation is a basic requirement for this type of product so go for the most expensive plan. It might probably end up being a lot cheaper after all.

Installing

Follow the directions at Garmin's website but during the actual download, add a second "Select Find It..." while drilling down the available apps for purchase. If you are wondering about how to get out of it check for Unsubscribing to applications in the Online Help for directions about how to cancel the subscription either on the phone itself or at Sprint's website.

There are quite a few applications available under Maps and More including TeleNav, MapQuest Mobile and MapQuest Traffic, NearHere, Trimble Outdoors, Rand McNally and Express New Maps. The only other package that combines the use of GPS and turn by turn directions is TeleNav which also costs US$ 9.99 for unlimited usage.

But if you check for the subscription price of TeleNav at other providers like in for Nextel/Boost you will find out that you have to pay extra for trip after the limit of 4 per month is reached.

MM7400

I borrowed a Sanyo MM7400 for this review. The MM7400, launched in 2004 is a CDMA model that uses Qualcomm MSM6100 chipset and runs apps developed with Brew. This was the first model from Sanyo to include a video camera [PDF specs].

The Garmin application is a Java Midlet using J2ME (MIDP 2.0, CLDC 1.1) that makes use of the GPS API from Qualcomm provided with its Java Extensions (com.qualcomm.qjae.gps.*) in its gpsOne platform.

That because Qualcomm wanted to offer developers the ability to run Java code in its devices and platform, and incorporated a Java Virtual Machine (from Insignia) in its chipset combined to the ARM's Jazelle used to accelerate its performance.

These phones use Assisted GPS to obtain a fix in two basic modes: Mobile Device Based or Mobile Device Assisted. At this time Brew doesn't support a third, standalone mode where all work is done by the mobile device itself without any help from the network.

But you will need to be close to a window to be able to get the first fix and if you want good accuracy you better have a clear view of the sky. After that you can even be in an enclosed area that you will be able to keep some level of location. At some point it will use the last known position if required. This paper [PDF] describes in detail the operation of Assisted-GPS provided by the gpsOne chipset and software.

Using it

When you start Garmin Mobile it will always ask you if it can access the GPS in the phone, but you will first need to enable the Location service in the phone itself (Menu | Settings | Location). Read the warning about using the phone while driving and make sure you understand the consequences.

From there you can pick a destination and see a map with your current location. Get used to the little hourglass icon. You will see it quite a bit. Notice the accuracy rate at the top of the map image. You can zoom in (3) and out (1) to get more or less details of the NavTeq provided street maps. In the maps blue is used as the route color, red for highways and orange for streets.

To get directions go back and select the other option. Now you can search for address, POI's, cities and airports. You can also look for your saved locations at Garmin's website.

Mobile Manager

The way you go about this is by first creating an account at the Garmin Mobile website under Mobile Manager. After that you can find places in the website by name or address. You can also browse by category for POI's in a given area. Imagine then that for a trip you are planning, you can save location of the hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and parks for example.


With the location saved in the website, go back to the phone and select My Locations. There you will see Mobile Manager. If you select that option you will be presented with the addresses you saved at the website. You can also save addresses under My Favories in the phone itself.

By default it will always pick the fastest route, so if you don't want to pick highways you are out of luck. But you can always change from the original route and wait for it to be recalculated.

You might experience less accuracy than what you would get from a real GPS device if you get location information inside buildings, so expect to have to adjust the directions in that case. In one case I had a nearby street used to start a route while the package calculated the directions to a restaurant. While following the directions the voice prompts for the turns were a bit too close for confort specially when you are coming from a highway. If you driving along a street they are just fine.

If you missed the voice directions press OK on the Turns page and you will be able to listen to it again. The drawback is that it will take a while and you might miss the turn anyway, the longer the sentence more time will be needed for the text-to-speech engine to convert it. The phone does a pretty good job with the voice itself and you will get used to it pretty fast. It will also save you the download cost of keeping the maps up to date.

Garmin also sells a universal phone support ($19.99) for the phone that you can mount at the windshield which isn't legal in CA. The idea is to "listen" to the phone not to look at it. Either because of the small size, reflections or just a plain dark screen. Be sure to try the safest way to use the phone.

Conclusion

The main advantage of these systems over dedicated turn-by-turn navigation hardware is that the maps will be kept up-to-date as long as you pay for the service, without the need to obtain updates for your current maps.

The ease and speed in obtaining a first fix with a clear sky is quite amazing but as expected you might loose a bit in accuracy under poor visibility conditions. Compared to dedicated navigation systems you might be saving quite a bundle here but it will also depend on how much use you make out of it. For casual use it is quite a deal.

But you will need to have the right phone and the right plan for use this package. At least for now. Also, consider the use of these packages with care, don't ignore the warnings about using it while driving. Be smart.

[Update: And Garmin announced today support for Nokia, Windows Mobile and Treo 650 Smartphones with Garmin 20 which includes a BlueTooth GPS receiver and phone cradle. But for now, it is just a teaser, Garmin says that it should only be available around July.]

Sunday, March 05, 2006

SightMap: Down at the Street Level

Local Maps and Search are getting more attention from the big guys recently and Microsoft just announced the use of Facet SightMap technology in a preview website where you can navigate through streets of Seattle and San Francisco while moving a mouse.

This is similar to what A9 has made available a while ago for more areas. Facet has patents covering graphical search and has compiled "over 200 terabytes of image data". The idea is to provide turn-by-turn directions with reference to actual landmarks.

First seen at ExtremeTech

Thursday, March 02, 2006

PR's, rumours and let's check that leak

At this point you probably know that Microsoft is carefully leaking information on some sort of tablet based device by the codename Origami. I only mention it here because it is said to include an embedded GPS and because this is clearly a way to counter and preempt any announcement Jobs could have made about a similar device from Apple. [Update] Windows for Devices got the specs and price (not cheap).

[Update: It is official, but notice the Pharos logo at the bottom of the page. Pharos just announced iGPS 500 to be available by April with BlueTooth, CF and SD adapters, an universal GPS receiver that can work with any available interface. Great idea. But looks like you will need to fork a bit more to have GPS on the UMPC unless they get included in more expensive models.]

Check the PR from LockHeed Martin which is celebrating "50 years of successful in-orbit operations" of its GPS satellite fleet and its continuous modernization efforts.

NavTeq announced the semi-finalists for its Global LBS Challenge with competitors presenting their location-based services like Loc-Aid, Kamida and KnowledgeWhere among others.

And for some real news, a study by Carnegie Mellon University says that cell phones interfere with aircraft equipment specially GPS devices. Com'on, let's turn these things off.

Mobil EarthComber

In one of those "write about it but don't make it look as a press-release", AP put out two articles on Mobil's latest free offer for PocketPC and Palm based PDA's with EarthComber.

To get started with the offer you first create a free account at www.earthcomber.com making sure that you check the "don't send me mail" box if that's the case. Reply to the confirmation email and log in. Then pick the maps from the areas you want by searching by county or city. Download the installers for either Windows, Mac OS X or Linux for you PocketPC or Palm based device.

This will download the Java based installer and its corresponding Java Runtime Environment (around 10 Mbytes). The whole process takes quite a while. That will install Eartchcomber Updater version 2.1, and if you don't want it launched everytime Windows starts, rememeber to uncheck the corresponding box. At the end of the installation process connect your PDA to your host PC, choose which device you have, login again with your account information and hit Get Updates to download the maps you have selected.

Details from the download will be displayed in a dialog that allows you to choose where you want the download to be stored in the PDA. It also has settings for the application to be installed and Look Lists "of favorite things that you want Earthcomber to find for you". But a bug in the software will take you back to the main dialog when you click the Summary button. So make sure you make your selections before you try that.

Using it

At that point the ActiveSync dialog will finally come up and you can pick the location for installing the EarthComber application itself in your PDA. Close now the Updater and start the application in the PDA. Check the first screen with directions about how to manage the current position and press OK. Select Maps and click on the map you selected for download.

From the main screen you can load a Spot Guide, View a map, comb for locations and see your spots (or waypoints). The maps are vector based and do not provide that much resolution.

Have your GPS card connected (or not, you can still use the software without GPS) and turn the application on. It will look for your card automatically but you can set its COM port and baud rate by clicking the EarthComber icon at the top of the screen and selecting Options | Settings and hitting the GPS tab.

Each new screen presented in the application is preceeded by a help text that explains it. You can toggle it off after seeing it by the first time. Every single screen will cause the help to be displayed which gets annoying after a while.

Combing

What you get for free is the ability to "comb" for places in your area (or another location you choose) and obtain directions to it. For example, hit the green comb icon the the toolbar and you get a list of places, based on the choice you made while downloading the maps for your current area. In my case I choose Outdoors and I'm being presented with Parks, beaches and trails among other choices that I can look up for more information.

Pick one of the categories and a list of available beaches for example, in the area will be listed with the distance in miles from your current location. Select one of them and you will probably get something that says "listing based on limited US government data" which implies data you are on your own and you can provide your own data to earthcomber.com.

But the good thing is that, if you have a live internet connection, you can get directions to that location. Just set it as a start (or end) and hit Get Directions. Not bad for a free application and map.

Mobil sells Spot Guides with travel information of major cities of U.S. with titles from Mobil Travel Guide and Moon Guides from Avalon Guides Publishing among others.