Rushing down Stephen Avenue mall over the dwindling lunch hour, you realize you have to stop at a bank machine to withdraw a few bucks.
You punch a few quick numbers into your cell phone, tap into a wireless location network and ask for directions. Within seconds, a pleasant voice informs you to proceed north five metres, turn left through a door and climb three stairs to a banking outlet. Mission accomplished.
But while many of us have heard about how wonderful location technology will be for navigation and m-commerce, experts say there’s still a long way to go before such pinpoint accuracy is available to consumers.
Market analysts have estimated more than 90 million North Americans will be routinely using wireless location by 2004 — to track their possessions, locate cell phone users or even find lost pets and wayward seniors — but “the technological problems to get there are enormous,” says Dr. Gerard Lachapelle, a leading wireless location researcher at the University of Calgary.
Lachapelle says providing accurate locations of cell phones or vehicles to within a few metres remains a major challenge for researchers and potential manufacturers.
“As we demand more and more of our technology, the technical problems increase exponentially,” explains Lachapelle, an engineering professor who currently holds both an iCORE (Informatics Circle of Research Excellence) Chair in Wireless Location and a Canada Research Chair at the U of C.
“The public sometimes doesn’t want to realize that. But we are basically working at a point of diminishing returns. And this is why, to make all those wonderful advances, a lot of R&D has to be done in order to get there. It is immensely complicated to make such a service available in a seamless manner.”
In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that wireless carriers must by the end of this year begin to deploy technologies that can locate wireless users who call 911. Unlike conventional wired phones, mobile phones don’t automatically reveal their location when users call an emergency line — and in the U.S., mobile-phone users dial 911 an estimated 70,000 times per day.
The regulatory push has accelerated the race to set the marketplace standard for wireless location.
There are two types of technologies commonly used in location-based services — network-based terrestrial systems and Global Positioning System satellites, and each is quickly evolving to establish and capture its target markets.
GPS uses a system of 24 military satellites orbiting at 11,000 nautical miles above the Earth, transmitting signals that can be detected by anyone with a GPS receiver. Using receivers held in your hand or mounted in a car, you can determine your location with reasonable precision.
But while it’s useful for a trucking firm to use GPS to track its fleet, or sailors to navigate through shallow seas, Lachapelle says satellite location is less ideal in built-up urban areas like downtown Calgary. Conventional GPS receivers require an unobstructed view of the sky to operate reliably.
Calgary-based Cell-Loc Inc. uses its own patented Cellocate technology, where geographical positions of cell phones or vehicles can be determined within about 100 metres by collecting and processing wireless transmissions through a series of passive “listening posts,” often piggybacked on existing cell phone towers or other antennae.
Using Cellocate, current-generation cell phones or personal wireless devices can be tracked without the expense of upgrading a user’s handset with an internal GPS chip. The system also has geo-sensing capabilities — it can tell you when an employee or a vehicle has left or entered a designated area.
Which technology will win out for the hotly competitive business and consumer markets?
“The location-based industry . . . is expected to be a huge growth area over the next couple of years,” predicts Andrew Simurda, a technology analyst with Yorkton Securities.
But he notes wireless carriers are not rushing to commit to a specific location method.
“My personal opinion is that carriers are playing the devil’s advocate where they don’t want to commit to any one technology at this point in time,” he says.
“In all likelihood, two to three years down the road most carriers will probably have a dual system.”
Lachapelle agrees. “If you implement the Cell-Loc technology in city cores, it will work, no question,” he says. “But the carriers have not done that yet, because they hope that the final solution will be with a low-cost GPS chip inside a cellphone.”
Scott McArthur, director of technology development for national wireless service provider TELUS Mobility, says carriers aren’t simply sitting on their hands waiting for new location devices to emerge.
“Rather than taking a wait-and-see approach, what we’re doing is trying to evaluate the different potential solutions for giving location co-ordinates and finding out what best matches our customer needs and requirements,” McArthur says.
The company has spent the past couple of years looking at different location sensitivity solutions, but McArthur says there’s no point rolling out a service unless it’s consistent and can work accurately under a variety of conditions.
Over at Calgary’s CSI Wireless Inc., which provides advanced wireless and GPS technology for asset tracking and location, CEO Stephen Verhoeff is also convinced the ultimate solution will be a hybrid of current technologies.
“In the next year or two, GPS receivers will be embedded in cellphones. It’s a pretty simple thing to do,” he says. “The difference between location-based systems like Cell-Loc and GPS is that GPS is one-time. You buy it, you’re done. You don’t pay ongoing fees.”
Large U.S. auto manufacturers have already introduced in-car technology to send and receive data. General Motors’ Onstar GPS wireless service includes remote door unlocking, stolen vehicle tracking and emergency ambulance and police help, as well as voice-activated personal calling and personalized Internet information such as sports scores, stock quotes and news headlines.
SnapTrack Inc. of San Jose has also unveiled a device integrating GPS-receiving capability in a wireless handset with a cell-based wireless network, which can operate inside buildings and in downtown “urban canyons.”
Wireless location “is a very fragmented market today, which means that a lot of companies will be very successful, but a lot are going to fall by the wayside or be taken out by another company,” notes analyst Simurda. “There are a lot of players going after the space because of the growth potential.”
This past week, Cell-Loc announced a partnership with Nortel Networks Corp. to test a voice-activated, wireless location-sensitive service in Austin, Tex., this spring. The company says the Austin beta trials — already completed successfully in Calgary last year — will open doors to immediate revenue opportunities.
By dialling a pre-arranged phone number, wireless users will gain access to location-sensitive directory assistance and navigational information without requiring the user to input an address or even a city. Nortel’s voice-navigation system will then translate the caller’s request into data, which can tap into a database of nearby services. The results are then converted into a voice response on the caller’s handset.
The next biggest challenge for Cell-Loc, says company COO John Krpan, “is transitioning the research-and-development company that nailed the technology to an operating company that will earn revenue.
“When we start doing these trials, and turning these people into paying customers, the market’s not going to be a problem,” he believes.
In their northeast Calgary plant, Cell-Loc engineers are working on what company officials call a “widget,” a prototype transmitter which can fit on a bracelet or even a dog collar — in anticipation of a market to track lost pets, wandering seniors or even wayward parolees.
“The technology is there, it’s just the size,” notes Krpan. “What we’re hoping to do by the summer, maybe the fall, is to shrink the existing technology to make it more applicable to certain things.
“The take-up rate is kind of hard to predict, but we’re not talking years. It’s going to be a very rapid escalation because the demand out there, from what we can see, is very high.”
Regardless which system of wireless location ends up setting the standard in the marketplace, researcher Lachapelle believes improving the technology will be an incremental process. “There is nobody coming out suddenly with a black box that solves everything. These things exist in fairy tales, but not reality,” he says.
It’s not just a more precise pinpointing that must be developed, he adds, but the ability to provide the user all kinds of geospatial base information – like what services or businesses are nearby — in real time.
“As we move along, we will require more and more accuracy,” he says. “Because accuracy is highly addictive.”