Home is where 127.0.0.1 is
Written byFaruk Ateş. 8 comments
If your computer is your home, geolocation is set to remind you that there's a whole world out there.
Three years ago, if you told someone you had a GPS — or Global Positioning System — device in your pocket or backpack, the most common expectation would have been that you took your car’s GPS module with you, to prevent it from being stolen. Handheld devices with GPS receivers were very rare back then, excluding the car modules, which had been around for a number of years and were growing increasingly popular. But nowadays, with the millions of iPhones, the Palm Pres, the various Android phones and even some digital cameras that have GPS built-in, your ability to pinpoint your exact location on the planet has suddenly become commonplace, mundane even. Want to know where you are? Hit up the GPS and you’ll have your latitude and longitude data in seconds right there on your small screen.
I’m here. Where are you?
This rapid proliferation of position-aware devices, finding their way into the pockets and purses of people everywhere, has not gone unnoticed by the web and the consumer electronics market. Leading the pack, the Apple iPhone AppStore carries a raft of applications that explore the potential that comes with knowing your place in the world. For example Geocaching, an app that allows you to play a global treasure hunting game using the real world as a playing field and high-tech GPS gadgetry as instruments to find virtual treasures. Or try Urbanspoon, an application that uses your current location to offer you a restaurant or café in your vicinity.
On the web, free services like Brightkite, Loopt and Foursquare allow you to ‘check in’ to a location and share it with all your friends. ‘I’m at Thorough Bread and Pastry in San Francisco, writing an article for a magazine’ — something I just shared with the world on my Brightkite and my Twitter.
A great many people use their GPS enabled devices to check in at bars and restaurants, clubs and coffee shops, work and home. Others use the enhanced awareness of the device to see who or what else might be in their vicinity, something particularly useful when exploring new cities or countries. When in Rome, go where the Romans go. Get away from the beaten path and the throngs of tourists, and use the power of the internet in your pocket to see what else is available — things that are probably not listed in the Lonely Planet guide.
In just a few years, this location-awareness has transformed the lives of millions of people. Some more examples: just the other night, my friend was using MobileMe’s ‘Find My iPhone’ feature to check where his wife and son were on their 15 hour drive home. The car’s GPS had stopped working and while relying on Google Maps on the phone, they missed their exit due to heavy rain. Google was then trying to take them on a course that would have added a one-hour detour to the already long drive, but thanks to ‘Find My iPhone’ my friend was a able to pinpoint where they were and provide them with precise directions to get back on track.
Using that same service, a LiveJournal user named Kevin who goes by the alias “happywaffle”, was able to track down someone who had thought themselves lucky enough to “find” an iPhone in a bar one night. Chasing the culprit with the aid of a friend and a laptop and using MobileMe’s service to follow the device, Kevin was lucky enough to in fact ‘Find his iPhone’.
These examples illustrate how useful and valuable location awareness can be, but they are still relatively simple use cases on their own. They are enough to matter, but really only indicative of so much potential.
Tearing Down the Wall
On the web itself we haven’t seen too much movement in terms of supporting location awareness. There are some good reasons for that. For one, laptops don’t typically come with GPS receivers built-in. As well, web browsers currently need a plugin to work with Skyhook Wireless, an online service that keeps a database of the real-world locations of wireless hotspots found in almost every urban area. With an appropriate plugin, the user can grant websites and services access to the (rough approximation of the) computer’s position in the world. It’s not as good as GPS of course, but it comes pretty close.
But movements are afoot. At the time of writing the latest public release of Firefox, 3.5, comes with built-in support for the new Geolocation API specification from the W3C. This specification, currently still in Working Draft but soon to go into Last Call status, allows developers to use a native implementation in the browser — as opposed to a plugin that the user must first manually install — to access Geolocation data through a combination of services.
While Firefox is the only desktop browser at this time that supports the new standard, mobileSafari, the version that ships with the iPhone, does so as well. And while desktop Safari doesn’t, the just-released Snow Leopard OS contains built-in functionality to determine the location of the device, so there’s some reason to expect that it will eventually support Geolocation, too. With two of the four main browsers supporting it on the desktop, developers will be more wiling, not to mention more able, to explore the technology.
And then what happens?
Let’s look at a couple of ways in which websites could make use of the Geolocation standard.
One of the first things that springs to mind has to be geo-tagging of content. It’s already a fairly common practice to geo-tag photos, so why not other types of content? While it may often be less relevant to know where a blog post is written, compared to a photo where the location also helps identify the contents of the photo itself, it’s still meta-data that can be of interest, even significance.
Location-oriented web services could do all sorts of things a lot easier, faster and automatically with this technology. Services like Brightkite and Foursquare could almost power themselves with it. A website’s design could be made to include photos from a photo-sharing site like Flickr that are geo-tagged to be at or near the visitor’s location. Or perhaps you’d want your own blog to include one such photo with each blog post you make while traveling.
Websites like Ebay and Craigslist could tell you about everything that’s up for sale within a ten-block radius from where you are, and Yelp could welcome new visitors with the latest and greatest shops and restaurants nearby. The opportunities for brand extension, design and marketing, as well as communication with your visitors are open ended. When these technologies become widely available, the truly innovative implementations will start to emerge.
We’re living in a world where ‘home’ is becoming more and more the place where we open up our laptops. The new home is the screen through which we communicate with the rest of the world; it’s about time we let the real world remind us where we are, and to take in our surroundings.
There’s a whole new world to explore—again.