Coordinating content

An emerging technology can help people find the nearest toilet, prevent them from sleeping past their station and turn cities into games boards. E&T takes a look at locative media.

When it comes to painting pictures of the future and the advantages that new technologies can bring, futurologists stick to the snazzier things, with depictions of flying cars, meals-in-a-pill and robot butlers. There's something less exciting about a future in which our mobile phones can guide us to the nearest toilet. And yet, thanks to the developing technologies of locative media and location-based services, this is the brave new world we can expect.

 What's the difference between locative media and location-based services? The terms often overlap, but locative media are tied to a set of coordinates such as the points of interest that you can download onto a satellite navigation system to alert you when you pass a good pub. A location-based service, on the other hand, uses knowledge of your location to tailor content to your needs. One example is Westminster City Council's SatLav service, which users can text to get details of their nearest facilities. Another is the iNap, an application that alerts you when you're in danger of sleeping beyond your train or bus stop. These examples may seem prosaic, but according to Professor Steve Benford from the University of Nottingham's computer science department, such location-based services and media could usher in a new era of computing.

"Locative media is just the first step towards ubiquitous computing, the idea that computers are embedded into everything around us and the world comes alive with digital information," he said. "Some people argue it's the third major wave of computing. In the first wave there were many people for each computer. In the second wave there's more or less one computer to one person. In the future the argument is that there will be thousands of computers for each person, which will be a radical shift in the way that we think of computing. Locative computing is a step towards that future."

If the potential of a new technology can be measured by the amount of money that is being thrown at it, then locative media is very exciting indeed. The $100m iFund was launched to invest in companies that develop location-based services for the GPS-enhanced iPhone 2. Dev Khare from venture-capital firm Venlock says that locative media projects of all kinds are now attracting interest from commercial backers.

"GPS and other location technologies are becoming ubiquitous. As a result, people can use their location to power all sorts of applications such as navigation, local search, social networking and so on. Location really makes these applications come alive. We haven't seen the peak in interest in locative media yet - Asia is just at the beginning of the curve, the US and EU are a bit further ahead but it is still early days."

Biosensitive mapping and gaming

Early adopters might have already come across some forms of locative media. 'Geocaching' games, which used GPS coordinates to create a kind of treasure hunt, provided an early indicator of the way that locative media has moved games away from the television and monitors. Similarly, the ability to tag photos with locations has been available for a few years now and has been paralleled by Google's efforts to photograph city streets for its Google Maps Street View application, which enables an alarming level of real-world voyeurism. However, it is the artistic community that is providing the bleeding-edge examples of what happens when content meets coordinates to create locative media.

Artist Christian Nold of Softhook is working with several applications of locative media, perhaps most interestingly with biomapping technology.

"I map an area using data recorded from people's galvanic skin response," he said. "That measures their physiological arousal and it's the closest we can get to measuring a person's emotions. I record this with my biomapping device as people go for a walk. We then use that information to visualise their walk as a personal map, so if there's a spike it might be because there's a dangerous traffic junction, or because they saw an attractive person."

Understandably, this work has been seized upon by geographers as a radical new way of mapping places and building up an emotional topography.

 The EU-funded Integrated Project on Pervasive Gaming brought together artists, technologists and gamers to create several games in which locative media was an integral element of gameplay. One game, called 'Rider Spoke', invited players to cycle around a city with handheld computers, hiding from other players and recording messages, which would then be stored at that location for other players to find. Dr Benford says games that require players to get out and about are just the beginning.

"In terms of games we're doing some work using biosensitive information as well, where a game is not only based on your location but on your heart-rate. So not only do you need to get to the right place in a city, but you also have to be not too out of breath. This sort of thing is really interesting as a way of looking at games for fitness."

 Other games have used an augmented reality model to blur the lines between the virtual gaming environment and the real world. 'Pacmanhattan' used players at computer consoles controlling players on the streets of Manhattan to play out games of 'Pacman' while the four ghosts gave chase - the costumes were optional. Another game, 'GPS::Tron' enables players in the real world to act out the 'Light Cycles' game from the movie Tron, using GPS-enhanced mobile phones and the streets of any location. As you travel around you create a 'wall', displayed on your phone, which you use to box in your opponent.

Information services

Locative media is also being used for information services. GPS software developer Navevo recently launched 'BBNav', a satnav that provides content tailored for people with disabilities. It shows dedicated disabled parking spots and the location of shopmobility schemes, as well as more than 20,000 relevant points of interest.

Other information services such as 'Everyblock' enable you to filter news based on location, effectively giving you the option of creating an extremely localised news service. If you'd rather provide the information than receive it then 'Socialight' enables you to create virtual notes and post them about anything, anywhere you like. Other users can then access these notes when they reach the right point.

 One final application of locative media brings advantages to scientific experiments. With enough participation researchers can very quickly gather specific media from a variety of locations, allowing large-scale research projects to be developed with relative ease and at a far lower cost. 'Participate' is one such project, encouraging schools to take readings and upload information onto platforms such as Google Maps.

"There are a lot of projects where students are doing things like measuring pollution and noise trails using sensors," explains Benford. "I think this is a really exciting area of locative media where it's about a public engagement in science, or maybe even about doing proper science."

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