Mapped for success

Driving down the road in an unfamiliar city, you come to a major intersection. As usual, the roads signs are plastered over with movie posters, offering only tantalizing glimpses of the actual name of the road. Do you turn left? Right? Or go straight?

Driving down the road in an unfamiliar city, you come to a major intersection. As usual, the roads signs are plastered over with movie posters, offering only tantalizing glimpses of the actual name of the road. Do you turn left? Right? Or go straight? Just when all hope seems lost, a dulcet voice from the dashboard calmly says "Take this right, and go straight for 400 meters". You take a quick look at your fuel gauge, and see you're running low. "Petrol pump 2 kilometers ahead". A smile flickers on your face as you drive on. No, this is not something out of Star Trek. This is what a GPS device can do for you.

This is only one of the benefits of a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. GPS devices have been around for ages, but without detailed maps of Indian cities, they were pretty useless for the average consumer. This year looks to be different though, with many companies getting into the mapping space and promising comprehensive maps of most Indian cities. GPS is coming of age in India, and not a moment too soon. Given the chaotic traffic conditions in our country, anything that helps you get from point A to B in the shortest possible time is nothing less than a godsend.

What is this GPS thing?

A GPS device uses satellites to pin down your exact position on the earth, within an area of about 50 feet square. Your position is reported in terms of the latitude, longitude, and altitude. Now, while geographically inclined folks may be interested in knowing that they are at 12.58N 77.35 E and 775 meters above mean sea level, the rest of us would prefer to have this position reported on a map. The larger Indian cities have been mapped quite comprehensively, and more cities are due to be mapped very soon. At present, detailed maps are available for Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune.

The most obvious use for a GPS device is helping you navigate in a city. Once you know where you are on a map, working out a route to your intended destination is quite easy. You simply tell the device where you want to go, and it calculates the best possible route from your point of origin, and displays it. The better GPS devices provide turn by turn guidance with voice prompts telling you exactly how to proceed. Besides this, most GPS maps contain Points of Interest or PoIs. These include restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, temples, petrol pumps, and the like. PoIs are especially useful to frequent travelers. If you want to find a good place to eat, all you need to do is pull out your GPS-enabled phone or discrete device, and press a button. In a minute or so, you get a list of all the eating joints in the vicinity, with directions.

There are many other ways in which a GPS device is useful. Surveyors and architects use GPS on building sites. Fishermen in Kerala use GPS to navigate back to the place where they spotted a good catch. Transport and Logistics companies keep track of exactly where their shipments are. Besides the obvious commercial uses, adventure sports enthusiasts will already be familiar with the myriad uses of a GPS. Whether you're hiking off the beaten trail, or want to find that perfect diving spot, a GPS device can come in very handy. Anyone who needs to keep track of where he or she is or find his or her way to a specified location or know what direction and how fast he or she is going can utilize the benefits of GPS.

GPS was developed by the US Department of Defense as a foolproof method of satellite navigation. The idea was conceptualized in 1973, though the system became fully operational only in the early nineties. It was initially intended to be used solely for military purposes, but the US government realized the tremendous civilian applications and made it available for everyone to use.

Global Positioning System satellites transmit signals to equipment on the ground. GPS receivers passively receive satellite signals; they do not transmit. GPS receivers require an unobstructed view of the sky, so they are used only outdoors and they often do not perform well within forested areas or near tall buildings. GPS operations depend on a very accurate time reference, which is provided by atomic clocks on the satellite. There are at least 24 operational GPS satellites at all times plus a number of spares.

Each GPS satellite transmits data that indicates its location and the current time. All GPS satellites synchronize operations so that these repeating signals are transmitted at the same instant. The signals, moving at the speed of light, arrive at a GPS receiver at slightly different times because some satellites are further away than others. The distance to the GPS satellites can be determined by estimating the amount of time it takes for their signals to reach the receiver. When the receiver estimates the distance to at least four GPS satellites, it can calculate its position in three dimensions. See the box ' How GPS Works' on the opposite page for a more detailed explanation of what makes it tick.

So you're all stoked about the fantastic things GPS can do for you. All ready to head out on the open road with the power of technology by your side. The only question is, how do you get it? There are two things that you need: A GPS receiver and a mapping application loaded up with a few maps. If you have a newer phone, you might already have a GPS receiver, since many new phones come with a GPS receiver built in. The Nokia N95 8GB, Asus P750, and the Sony Ericsson P1 are three examples. While these are slightly expensive devices, GPS is starting to become a standard feature, with Nokia promising to include it in across its entire range of phones.

If you have a GPS receiver built in, you'll need to buy a map of the city you are interested in. Map packs are available for as low as Rs. 2,000 (US$50), with updates coming in at Rs.500. Nokia recently updated its Maps application with maps for six Indian cities, so you can update your firmware if you have a compatible model. In case you don't have a phone with an in-built GPS receiver, don't fret. There are quite a few options available. The cheap option would be to get a Bluetooth enabled GPS receiver and connect that to your phone, PDA, or laptop. Load up a mapping application, and you're all set.

A step up from these options is a dedicated GPS device. There are quite a few options available here. Garmin is a famous brand that has been around for ages. Other companies like TomTom and Magellan are also available through local dealers and the gray market.

Besides these, both MapMyIndia and SatNav Technologies have been promoting their GPS solutions recently. MapMyIndia has two devices available, the Delphi NAV 200 and the A-MAX O6GP5A. They are priced at Rs. 22,000 and are functionally identical. They come preloaded with maps for eight major cities, and a good database of PoIs. Updates are released every six months, and priced at Rs.2, 000 per year. The first year is free, though.

SatNav Technologies has a range of devices available. The cheapest are the Bluetooth dongles that have to be connected with a phone or a laptop. This is available for Rs. 6,000. The price includes a map for one city, and the necessary software. They also have a dedicated Personal Navigation Device available for Rs. 12,000, and a PDA with GPS for Rs.16,000. This price includes one city map. Extra maps can be purchased for Rs.990, and updates to the maps are priced at Rs.500 per map.

More expensive cars often have an option for a GPS system to be pre-installed. As with mobile phones, this is starting to trickle down to mid-range cars as well.

Maps for the major metropolitan cities are quite detailed, at least in and around the city center. Distant areas can be a bit of a hit or miss affair, since roads might change and new colonies are springing up all the time. As long as the map makers issue updates regularly, this is not too much of a problem. Updates could be cheaper though. Ideally, given our fast changing cities, updates should be released every three months, and should cost a little less. Still, as time goes by, and the qualities of maps improve, this will be less of an issue.

Both MapMyIndia and SatNav are promising to bring more cites online this year, but there is no precise date announced. They should be out by the middle of the year, according to both the companies. If you live in a smaller city, like Jaipur, Indore, or Lucknow, a few months more should see your city covered. In fact, for state capitals, PoIs and major roads have been mapped. So even though you may not get turn by turn directions, you can find out hotels or places to eat in these cities.

One feature that is yet to make its way to our shores is real-time traffic updates. In many countries, GPS devices can keep track of the traffic conditions, and plan alternative routes if your preferred route is blocked, or there is heavy traffic along the way. This depends on traffic updates being issued via radio, and this facility is not available in India at this moment.

Europe and the US have been using GPS devices for many years now, and finally, we are catching up. Most cars sold abroad come with a GPS as part of its standard equipment, and people routinely use them to plan their journeys. Proper maps will make navigating around our cities a whole lot easier.

Of course, on the flip side, some people criticize the GPS system for taking all the fun and uncertainty out of traveling. The whole adventure of randomly driving around, asking people where a certain road is, and being met with blank looks, incredulity, or even worse, laughter while the passers-by inform you that you have come in entirely the wrong direction. The time-tested trick of asking at least three people the way to your destination might be seeing its last days.

GPS is not foolproof, though. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the maps are not foolproof. Sometimes it may tell you to turn into a wall, or drive through a lake. It's only as good as the map, and errors creep into the best maps. So don't hesitate to stop and ask if you get confused. There are reports of people who blindly trusted their GPS devices, even to the extent of actually driving into a lake. The friendly neighborhood paan-waalah might be better informed than your GPS, at least for a year or two till the map-makers get the maps up to speed.

Once you get used to navigating with a GPS, there are many other applications that you can use it for. Geo-caching is a popular sport that uses GPS devices to locate a hidden cache. Think of it as a treasure hunt, except in place of a yellowing map, you use a snazzy device. X still marks the spot, though.

Geo-tagging is an emerging practice where photographs are tagged with location information and GPS coordinates.Tech-savvy and professional photographers are currently using this, and as camera manufacturers start to bundle GPS in mid-range cameras, it's likely to expand.

You can also keep track of your kids' whereabouts with a GPS enabled cell phone. It can be programmed to message you the co-ordinates of where they are, and also notify you if they exceed a pre-defined limit.

Views of an Orwellian future aside, this technology has great potential, and we're pretty excited to see it finally taking off in India. Of course, this is all dependant on the map-makers coming up with accurate maps and timely updates. If they manage to pull this off, GPS will be the technology of the year in 2008.

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Aditya Nag

PC World India
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