- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

Manufacturers and consumers are finding new applications for the Global Positioning System, or GPS, as its navigational technology becomes more accurate and accessible.

In fact, sometime in the not-too-distant future, a GPS device will be able to pinpoint a kiosk in a mall that sells a specific flavor of Smoothies and offer parched users driving and walking directions to that location, industry experts say.

Having begun as a military tool and evolved into a civilian convenience, GPS is poised to become the ubiquitous personal electronic companion.

The U.S.-owned utility has been around for a while, with its origins in monitoring missiles and other secret military uses, says Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst of Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory firm. The technology was first opened to consumer use during the Clinton administration. It provides users with positioning, navigation and timing services. The Air Force develops, maintains and operates the space and control segments of the GPS, gps.gov states.

GPS is rapidly spreading into several sectors of technology, ranging from built-in car devices to mobile phones, from dog collars to exercise wristwatches. New uses are being discovered right now, such as prisoner tracking, locating farm animals, location-based gaming and lone-worker protection.

“It’s helping consumers not only get from point A to B faster, easier, but helping improve the quality of life of consumers,” says Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington.

GPS devices are the fastest-growing segment of the consumer electronics industry, according to Tom Murray, vice president of marketing of TomTom Inc., maker of car navigation systems.

In 2006, 2.4 million personal navigation devices were sold in the United States. In 2007, 10 million devices were sold in the U.S., Mr. Murray says.

Mr. Koslowski estimates that as many as 20 million personal GPS devices will be sold in the U.S. this year and that 60 million people will own personal navigation devices worldwide. By 2012, as many as 112 million people will be using GPS devices, he predicts.

A driving force behind the growth of GPS consumerism is the enhancement of users’ experiences, whether they are on foot or in a car, Mr. Koenig says.

“By virtue of being able to pinpoint your location, it’s enabling a localization of services,” he says. “When your cell phone knows where you are, services can be tailored to your location.”

According to Bonnie Cha, senior editor at the technology-focused Web site CNET.com, many GPS devices offer preloaded maps with 2-D and 3-D views, text- and voice-guided turn-by-turn driving directions and points-of-interest search functions. Higher end, more advanced models offer traffic updates, Bluetooth interface, voice commands and multimedia capabilities to search for local services. Users can look up restaurants, gas stations and traffic congestion along their route.

“I think part of the reason why GPS has become so popular is people are starting to realize the convenience of GPS, since they get access to a number of navigation aids all in one device,” Ms. Cha says. “You also don’t need to print out directions since the [personal navigation device] provides visual aids and voice prompts that will guide you along your trip.”

GPS can save a lot of time and stress, as well as gas money, on a commute to work or on a long road trip, Ms. Cha says.

Mr. Koslowski says the main attraction of the system is the peace of mind in knowing where you’re headed and that you won’t get lost. The average person, he says, uses it two or three times a month, but for workers who must travel often, GPS use is almost a daily occurrence.

Michelle Lawson, 40, from Aldie, Va., says she uses the GPS in her car almost daily. The cellular device she has on her Blackberry is still a bit complex, she says, and she uses it only when she is looking for a specific location, if lost.

“Any time I’m going somewhere, especially going to the city, I always use my GPS because I don’t live in the city and don’t want to get lost,” Ms. Lawson said, a partner sales manager. “If they had better software, I would say the phone is handy because you won’t always have a portable GPS with you. You always have your phone with you.”

Just a few years ago, most people had access only to paper maps or computer printouts. Now, GPS users have a companion to get them through traffic congestion and find nearby services, Mr. Koslowski says. As the devices’ traffic functions continue to improve, consumers will use it more often than they do now.

D.C. resident Alexe Nowakowski, 39, says she uses the GPS on her iPhone daily, adding that it has transformed the way she does things by saving time and making her more efficient.

“I actually took my daughter out to a swimming place in Silver Spring and I used the MapQuest,” Ms. Nowakowski, executive director of CityDance, says. “If I didn’t have it, I probably wouldn’t have taken her because I would have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to get there. Instead, I just was able to punch it in my phone and go.”

Companies such as TomTom and Garmin International Inc., manufacturer of navigation, communication and sonar products, are endeavoring to make the technology handy and easy to use.

TomTom, for example, thinks about navigation in terms of four pillars: providing easy-to-use products, ensuring that consumers have the most accurate map information, finding the best routes, and offering safety features so help is readily available, if needed.

“We try to develop products that are easy to use,” says Mr. Murray, the company’s marketing chief. “We want you to pick up a TomTom right out of the box and be able to put it into the dashboard without having to read the directions.”

Unlike TomTom, which focuses mainly on in-vehicle navigation, Garmin offers a diverse range of products, from marine and outdoor devices to automobile and cellular technology.

Electronics technician Willie Harjo, 37, has a Garmin device for his car. He says it’s extremely user-friendly and helps him navigate more easily, while giving him an estimation of how long it will take to arrive at his destination. He also uses other features, such as finding services, which help him understand the Eastern Shore better.

“It helps me get around to the businesses I need to get to much quicker,” says Mr. Harjo, who drives around the District. “I don’t need to waste time trying to navigate areas I don’t know about.”

Some organizations, like the automobile owners association AAA, are collaborating with GPS companies to offer members services to transition away from printed maps and paper book information. Adam Hardt, director of automotive products for AAA Mid-Atlantic Inc., says the auto club is reaching out to Magellan Navigation Inc. for GPS partnering.

“In many situations, you’ll have a member that will use paper services for research and planning, but once you get in the car, the GPS is for getting there,” Mr. Hardt says.

Using Magellan units, AAA established a roadside assistance screen when members need help, Mr. Hardt says. The GPS unit can tell users where members are so they can relay the information to operations such as AAA, which can help.

“Even if you have a TomTom or Garmin, if you break down, you still need to call someone,” Mr. Hardt says. “That’s AAA’s primary responsibility.”

He says consumers can get a really good navigation device today for about $250. He expects in four years, though, that consumers will be able to get a decent device for $60. While they can be as low as $100, GPS devices can reach as high as $1,000 for certain devices such as motorcycle navigation.

However, there are consequences to consider when a technology becomes integrated into everyday life.

According to Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director for Jupiter Research LLC, a market- and trend-analysis firm, more and more people will give up their privacy by using GPS systems. He asks, do more and more people want to allow others to monitor their location at any given time?

“Are these devices making us dumber?” he says. “Situations have happened where people have been driving off bridges because a map isn’t updated and they’re not using their eyes.”

Maybe there will be a necessity to have a navigation system installed in the car, so drivers can participate in the traffic system, Mr. Koslowski says. Someday perhaps the government will realize it can manage these technologies to control traffic but not necessarily invade someone’s privacy, he adds.

“In the future, you may not be able, because there are so many car and emission restrictions, to choose wherever you drive, like you do today,” Mr. Koslowski says. “You may be limited where you drive and how you get there.”

Consumers mostly use navigation systems for calculating trip-related costs, such as gas and tolls, but also might use the GPS for having a pay-as-you-drive insurance plan, he says.

Meanwhile, “we can expect that GPS receivers will probably - by virtue of them entering into other products - the actual GPS receiver will continue to shrink in size and increase in its power efficiency and its reception capability for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Koenig says. “It’s really tough to say how small.”

In addition, accuracy will increase. Originally, according to Mr. Koslowski, GPS was at best capable of locating the user within 100 feet. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be able to locate the user if he were inside a building because it couldn’t get signal. Now it can locate a user within 20 to 30 feet.

The U.S. says it is committed to modernizing the satellites in the near future by adding two more signals to satellites. As the government also replaces the 24 GPS satellites orbiting Earth, accuracy will increase to the point where consumers should be able to pinpoint booths in shopping malls, he says.

Real-time traffic reporting is also in the works in the United States. Mr. Murray says TomTom is working on noting the rate at which cell-phone signals reach cell towers to give consumers up-to-date traffic data.

“The core impact, certainly for men, is they never have to stop and ask for directions anymore,” Mr. Gartenberg said, “which for a man is a big deal.”

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