Posts Tagged ‘GPS’

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Your Lost Gadgets Will Find Each Other

Graphic by Christine Daniloff, via MIT News Office

Sometimes when one of my remotes is missing, I interrogate the others: “Where’s your friend? I know you know something!” In the future, with wireless positioning systems, a version of that method might actually almost work.

Researchers at MIT’s Wireless Communications and Network Sciences Group think networks of devices that communicate their positions to each other will work better than all of the devices transmitting to a single receiver. The latter is how GPS works, and if you’ve used it, you know it isn’t always very precise. In the lab, MIT’s robots can spot a wireless transmitter within a millimeter.

This seems almost intuitive: the more “eyes” you have on an object, the easier it is to triangulate — the robot version of “the wisdom of crowds.” But the key conceptual breakthrough here isn’t actually the number of transmitters or their network arrangement, but what they’re transmitting. MIT News’s Larry Hardesty writes:

Among [the research group’s] insights is that networks of wireless devices can improve the precision of their location estimates if they share information about their imprecision. Traditionally, a device broadcasting information about its location would simply offer up its best guess. But if, instead, it sent a probability distribution — a range of possible positions and their likelihood — the entire network would perform better as a whole. The problem is that sending the probability distribution requires more power and causes more interference than simply sending a guess, so it degrades the network’s performance. [The] group is currently working to understand the trade-off between broadcasting full-blown distributions and broadcasting sparser information about distributions.

Much of this research is still theoretical, or has only been deployed in lab settings. But Princeton’s H. Vincent Poor is optimistic about the MIT group’s approach: “I don’t see any major obstacles for transferring their basic research to practical applications. In fact, their research was motivated by the real-world need for high-accuracy location-awareness.” Like precisely which cushion my remote control is underneath.

Warning: Very Dry Flash Video Of Robots Finding Things Follows

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Review: The Joy of Geocaching

We at GeekDad are not new to geocaching. We’ve covered geocaching as a great family activity, Letterboxing – the no-tech geocaching alternative, and geoocaching without a GPS. But if you’re still interested in getting in to the sport, but don’t know how to start or what to expect, there’s a book that has what you need. And it’s more than just a how-to.

Paul and Dana Gillin’s book, The Joy of Geocaching, was not what I was expecting when offered a review copy. Being a fan of geocaching myself, but not as active in the sport as I’d like, I began reading what I thought would be a primer on how to get started, what equipment to get, and how to build your own cache. I’ve certainly read plenty of backyard astronomy books that while providing an equipment guide, viewing tips and star charts, usually don’t do much to get you excited about your new hobby. I wasn’t sure what an author could bring to the subject of geocaching that would really break the mold. With this book, I was pleasantly surprised.

Geocaching, for those who might not know, is an outdoor activity best described as a treasure hunt. The website,, hosts an index of locations all over the world of hidden caches that can be found by putting the coordinates into a handheld GPS receiver and following clues to locate the cache once you’re in the vicinity. These caches are maintained by people who live in the area and are usually located in interested places. Caches in your own neighborhood will likely take you to locations you didn’t know existed. And they can certainly make vacations or travel a little more interesting.

If this sounds like fun, it is. And The Joy of Geocaching ratchets up the excitement even more. Because the book isn’t so much a primer about how to do geocaching; It’s a book about why you should take up the sport. The book opens with anecdotes about the people who go out, GPS receiver in hand looking for adventure. Peppered throughout the book are anecdotes about some of the best caches people have created, and some of the dangerous. There are descriptions by the people who have located them, and profiles of others who are masters of the sport. Reading about them and their finds make it easy to get the itch to go out yourself to see what adventure awaits in your own back yard. Maybe it’s a walk in the park. Or maybe you’ll be scooting down an abandoned railroad trestle bridge 50 feet up in the air looking for a magnetic container with it’s precious log book inside.

But this is not to say the book is all about the people. You will find plenty of information on how to get started, including how to select equipment that’s right for you and your budget. There’s also information detailing now only how to navigate the geocaching website, but also how to create an account and be an involved and active member. There’s also in-depth chapters that goes beyond the equipment itself including how to plan for an outing and how to navigate when you’re out in the field.

The book is well written, and does a great job at demystifying the jargon and explaining the tools and technology that made geocaching possible. They also provide plenty of reasons to get outside looking for and hopefully making your own caches. If you’re interested in getting started with geocaching, look no further than The Joy of Geocaching.

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Eight Great Tips for Traveling with the iPad

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg works on an iPad in a lounge at Newark airport, Wednesday April 14, 2010, before his flight to Oslo from the United States was diverted to Spain because of the cloud of dust from a volcanic eruption in Iceland hanging over northern European air space. (AP Photo/The Prime Minister's Office, ho)

The iPad is an almost perfect travel computer. It’s easy to carry, works as a guide, a map, a book and it’s crazy-long battery life will let you sit back and watch another movie while your laptop-toting companions search for a power outlet. But as convenient as it is, a little preparation will make things even smoother. Here are some things you should do before you leave the house.

Go Offline

A 3G iPad is a wonderfully useful machine, but outside of your home country, unless you’re willing to pay extra for roaming or a new, local micro-SIM, you’ll be back on Wi-Fi. Get ready for this by preparing a few apps.


OffMaps is an iPad (and iPhone) app which lets you download city maps for offline use. This lets you use the GPS (or Wi-Fi triangulation) on your iPad without an internet connection. City-specific versions of OffMaps are free, but a master version costs just $2 and lets you grab any map, for free, from within the app.

Maps are organized by country and then city, and are sourced from OpenStreetMaps, the crowd-sourced map project. There are also city guides which can be downloaded, and these not only give tourist hints and tips, but add a user-built database of restaurant, hotels, tourist-spots and so on. This makes searching the map double-useful. The guides cost around 30-cents each, and are paid for by buying tokens from within the app. Three free guides are included with the purchase.

A Wi-Fi Hotspot Directory

One way to get online in a foreign city is to find some free Wi-Fi. But if you don’t have an internet connection, you can’t download a hotspot database. Do this before you leave. There are several free and paid apps in the store, although I couldn’t find anything good for the iPad, so I just picked the free Wi-Fi Finder for iPhone and use it pixel-doubled.


If you’re spending your days outside, a weather app is pretty essential. You’ll need a connection to use it, but a once-a-day update should be enough. I use Weather Pro for iPad, which costs $5. It’s uncannily accurate and easy to read, and yet offers an embarrassment of detail, from animated weather-radar charts to an hour-by-hour breakdown of rainfall predictions. It also works worldwide, unlike some rather short-sighted U.S-only apps.

Language Guides

Which one you choose depends on where you are going, and quality is astonishingly variable. For vacations, though, you should opt for a travel-guide app rather than a full-on dictionary, as these will have useful phrases grouped together. Try learning the numbers one to ten by looking them up individually in a dictionary instead of together on a page and you’ll see why.

Why bother? Because if you are like most native English-speakers, you are an arrogant traveler, and you assume that you can just start talking English at somebody and they’ll understand. They probably will, as these foreigners are smart enough to learn another language, but they’ll hate you. You’d be amazed how far the local words for “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, and “do you speak English?” will get you. I tried it in jaw-crunching Polish this past weekend and the helpful, warm smiles I got betrayed just how few people bother. This happened despite my truly dreadful pronunciation.


Wherever you store them, you should put your useful travel information in PDF-format for your travels. Well known guides are available as apps for some cities, but some of you may have illegitimate copies of the paper versions, or even saved Wikipedia articles. Convert to PDF and store on the iPad for fast, offline retrieval.

Technical Tips

Stealth and Cases

You don’t want to stand out as a tourist, and in some areas you won’t even want to pull out your iPad. To help, you’ll need a case. It should be quick-access, as you’ll likely be consulting the various guides and maps pretty often. The best kind is probably the flip-open type which makes your iPad look like a book. Failing this, a slim slip-cover will work, although you’ll have to hold it as you read. Avoid anything big or bulky, and above all don’t use something that looks like a computer bag.

If you’re really not comfortable pulling out your iPad, or you just must consult the paper guide-book, cover that book in something. Do not wander the streets with a Lonely Planet book in hand. It screams “mug me” and makes you look like a dork. Best of all, try the little Moleskine City Guides, the most covert maps you can buy.


As you won’t be using 3G, you should switch it off. The same goes for Wi-Fi, most of the time. The iPad has a great battery life, but you can extend it further by switching off unnecessary radios, especially if you are in an area with no 3G coverage (the constant search for a network will drain juice double-quick).

Don’t do it right away, though: The GPS will grab its initial location much faster if it can use local cell-towers and Wi-Fi signals to give it a rough idea first. After initial acquisition, you can turn them off. Don’t use airplane mode, though, as this also kills the GPS.

Plan to Share

You can load the iPad up with the Lord of the Rings trilogy (books and movies) and the latest RPGs from Square, but won’t you please think about the children? Or at least consider your non-nerd fellow travelers. Before you leave, download some multi-player and family-friendly games (Labyrinth 2 HD is a great choice, and has a free lite version). Also, consider short, throwaway TV-shows that everyone will like, and that can be watched in half-hour chunks. Think less “The Wire” and more “30 Rock”. And don;t forget a cheap, two-way headphone splitter for shared movie-watching.

And if you’re sharing, there will come a point when you’re left staring out the train window, bored to death. This is where you pull out your secret weapon: Your iPhone or iPod Touch, loaded up with all the same goodies. And one more thing: Put all the above apps on your first home screen. You’ll thank me for it.

There must be plenty more great ways you can use your iPad when traveling, especially the online services I haven’t covered here. Got any apps, accessories or general tips? Leave them, as ever, in the comments.

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Canon’s 7D SV With Parental Controls, Barcode-Scanning

This is the oddest camera announcement you’ll see for a while: the Canon 7D Studio Version is, more or lass, a standard 7D with parental controls. It’s not to stop the kids messing with your DSLR, but to help busy pro-photographers to manage their workflow. I know: try to stay awake.

The 7D SV lets the master photographer set up the camera just how he likes and then send lackeys out to, say, shoot school-portraits without messing things up. There are, according to the press release, four-levels of locking so you can let the less stupid assistants do some things for themselves.

This has some utility. You could make sure all your images come back with precisely matched white balance, within the correct ISO-range, for example.

Also included, if you opt for a kit, is a version on Canon’s remote wireless transfer unit, the WFT-E5A. Normally this works like a $700 Eye-Fi card, sending GPS-stamped pics to your computer. With custom firmware the WFT-E5A loses the GPS but gains the ability to ready barcodes, adding their info to a picture’s metadata. Again, this is about speeding up large-volume workflows (stop yawning at the back). You can also scan codes direct to the camera.

The price for these patronizing products is $1,830 body-only (the normal 7D is $1,700) and $2,600 for the kit. Availability to be announced.

EOS 7D SV Press release [Canon]

The above photos shows the current 7D

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Man Scrawls World’s Biggest Message With GPS ‘Pen’

One man drove 12,238 miles across 30 states to scrawl a message that can only be viewed using Google Earth. His big shoutout: “Read Ayn Rand.”

Nick Newcomen did a road trip over 30 days that covered stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. First, he identified on a map the route he would need to drive to spell out the message. He put a GPS device in his car to trace the route he would follow. Then, he hit the road.

“The main reason I did it is because I am an Ayn Rand fan,” he says. “In my opinion if more people would read her books and take her ideas seriously, the country and world would be a better place — freer, more prosperous and we would have a more optimistic view of the future.”

Newcomen, unlike previous GPS artists, actually traveled the lines he traced on the map. He used a GPS logger (Qstarz BT-Q1000X) to “ink” the message. Starting his trip in Marshall, Texas, he turned on the device when he wanted to write a letter and turned off the device between letters. The recorded GPS data was loaded into Google Earth to produce the image above.

“The first word I wrote actually was the word ‘Rand’, then I went up North to do the word ‘Read’ and finished it with ‘Ayn,’” says Newcomen.

And for those who don’t know, Ayn Rand is a Russian-American writer whose books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are among the world’s best-selling novels.

Newcomen’s venture sounds pretty crazy, though he gets points for ambition.

What message would you write using a GPS?

Photo: Nick Newcomen

Man Scrawls World’s Biggest Message With GPS ‘Pen’

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Amateurs Fling Their Gadgets to Edge of Space

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A ride to the stratosphere and back has now become a rite of passage for smartphones.

Space enthusiasts are attaching devices such as the Motorola Droid, G1, HTC Evo and Nexus One — not to mention an array of digital cameras — to weather balloons or rockets, then sending them high into the stratosphere and beyond.

With integrated GPS systems, cameras and fast processors, smartphones are computing devices available to all. That’s why space enthusiasts are turning to them to do things that would have otherwise required custom components or a number of specialized devices.

“What you are seeing is a grass-roots initiative to reach for the stars,” says Bobby Russell, founder of Quest for Stars, a nonprofit organization that works with high school students to promote science and technology.

Driving the interest of hobbyists are the latest crop of smartphones and even digital cameras because the devices are cheap and fairly rugged.

“Now, it’s all there off-the-shelf for the taking,” says Russell. “So why reinvent the wheel?”

Photo: A Google G1 phone gets ready to head into the atmosphere, surrounded by members of the Noisebridge hacker space. Photo courtesy: Mikolaj Horbyn, Andrew Gerrand, Christie Dudley.

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Droid Eris Phone is Reborn as a Disney Tour Guide

HTC’s Droid Eris phone is getting a second lease on life as a tour guide in a Disney amusement park. Disney has taken the smartphone, added a frame around it to turn it into a device running an app that shows wait times for rides, offers discounts and indicates show times at the park.

The repurposed Eris also gives out tips and tricks and coupons for use in the park.

HTC launched the Droid Eris in November as a $100 smartphone (with a two-year contract) on Verizon Wireless. The Droid Eris had a 3.2-inch display, a 5-megapixel camera, Wi-Fi and GPS capability. It also used HTC’s Sense custom skin for Android. In June, Verizon said it has retired the Droid Eris.

Meanwhile, last year Disney also launched its Mobile Magic app for mostly feature phones and non-Android smartphones. The app gives users detailed information about the different Disney theme parks in the U.S. Now with the Android version of the app running on the Eris, Disney hopes to connect with those users who are already at the park.

Check out the video to see the Mobile Magic app on the Droid Eris

Ultimately, the Eris phone running the app may be offered as a free or “low cost add-on” for visitors on the trip, says the MickeyUpdates site.

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Apple Files Patent For a Smart Bike

If we saw a patent for an iPod Touch with a camcorder, we wouldn’t bat an eyelash. A Mac with a touchscreen? Unremarkable. But we did a double take when we read that Apple filed a patent for a smart bike.

The company, known more for its must-have consumer gadgets than any niche products, has imagined a smart bicycle system that would let users communicate electronically with other cyclists, sharing such data as speed, distance, time, altitude, elevation, incline, decline, heart rate, power, derailleur setting, cadence, wind speed, path completed, expected future path, heart rate, power, and pace.

If that sounds totally un-Apple, it’s worth noting that this system would require an iPhone or iPod Touch, so it’s not a complete departure from the kinds of products Apple usually makes. In fact, it’s not unlike Nike + iPod, which combines Nike sneakers and an app installed on iPod Nanos and Touches to monitor runners’ distance, time, heart rate, and other key stats.

To bicyclists, this idea might not seem novel; they can buy attachable computers now. But they also have to pretty serious about the sport: high-end models can cost upwards of $200. Even the LiveRider iPhone bike computer kit costs $100.

However, it’s unclear how tricked-out a smart bike would be, much less how much it might cost. Part of the mystery is that any number of sensors could be attached to the bike itself, to monitor how it’s moving, and in what direction. For instance, it could come loaded with GPS, an accelerometer, or a magnetic sensor, to name just three types. The patent does indicate, though, that regardless of the combination of sensors, the general concept of a smart bike would apply to any kind of bicycle, whether it be a mountain bike or BMX.

Then there’s the question of display. The patent indicates that an iPhone or iPod Touch, coupled with an armband, is possible, but so is a display (either fixed or removable) that’s attached to the handlebars. (We think a cradle for the iPhone sounds like the most elegant solution, allowing users to easily view data without having to spring for an additional piece of hardware.)

In terms of how intrusive such a system could potentially be, the patent suggests that users could also set a threshold (say, for speed) after which the system alerts the bicyclist to changes in their stats. It might even be possible for users to use voice commands to communicate with the app, which we’d prefer too if we were riding on a fast-moving bike.

We’re still stumped as to how a smart bike, applicable to far fewer customers than, say, an iPad, fits into Apple’s broader strategy. But if this is going to be the bicyclists’ version of Nike + iPod, we sure are intrigued.

Photo Credit: Patently Apple

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Video: Rolling Robot Ball Controlled by Android Phone

This amazing robotic ball is called the Smart Ball. Built into a small plastic sphere, the robot inside is controlled via your Bluetooth cellphone (Android only right now, but any phone could do it) and rolls in the direction you tell it. The control interface is the phone itself: You tilt it and the accelerometers pass on the info to the ball, controlling speed and directions. Imaging playing Super Monkey Ball in real life and you pretty much have it.

The balls are actually prototypes for a real commercial product, and were made by hacker group Gearbox. The Gearbox folks have already opened up the APIs (the parts that let programmers create apps to control the balls) and have been running hack weekends where people can come along and try them out.

Controlling a ball’s roll is pretty cool, but other uses are even cooler. For instance, one commenter suggests having a GPS app control the Smart Ball: input your destination and the ball would roll away, guiding you to your goal like a benign willow-the-wisp.

The Gearbox people are aiming for a price of around $25, and already have games planned or written. Sumo, for instance pits one ball against the other, with two people trying to knock each others’ ball off a table. The phone would keep track of things and offer stats and league tables. Neat.

We’ll be keeping an eye on the Gearbox blog to see when these are available to buy.

Smart Ball [Gearbox via Make]

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