Seeing the writing on the wall

GPS-based technology that allows mobile phone users to post virtual messages on buildings, doors and even potholes could be as big as SMS, its developer has claimed.

‘Digital graffiti’, the brainchild of researchers at Siemens’ Corporate Technology Centre in Munich, uses a specially adapted mobile phone or PDA to enable users to communicate via GPS with a central server and either read or write digital messages on physical landmarks.

Siemens’ digital graffiti research group, led by Dieter Kolb, has developed a device for mobile phones or PDAs that uses a built-in gyroscope, GPS transmitter and magnetic sensor to obtain positional information via GPS and then send a geographically post-marked message to a central server. Said to be accurate to within 30cm, this device is in a prototype plug-in form, but Kolb said it would be possible to build it into a handheld unit.

While the system is yet to be trialled beyond Siemens’ research labs, a number of likely applications have already been identified. One of the most promising of these, claimed Kolb, is in the maintenance of airport runways where potholes could be marked with digital graffiti. A maintenance engineer within 1km radius of a marked pothole could be sent a message that would use arrows on his phone’s display screen to direct him straight to the damaged area.

Beyond such relatively niche industrial applications, Kolb said that the technology has huge potential in the consumer market, where users could post or read personalised messages concerning everything from famous landmarks to menu recommendations at restaurants.

The technology is sufficiently advanced for a commercial product to be available within one to two years, according to Kolb. But whether this happens is largely dependent on interest from service providers.

Alexandra Musto, from Siemens’ Business Unit which is responsible for the project, said that while discussions are ongoing, interest is ‘not overwhelming’ and there are no immediate plans to commercialise the technology.

So why the lack of interest? Giles Lane, of London-based Proboscis, a think-tank that has been trialling similar technology as part of London’s Urban Tapestries project, suggested that a possible reason is that ‘no one has come up with any really compelling user scenarios’.

Lane said that it is the applications that arise from careful social study and fulfil a real need that will catch on. For instance, under new provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act, a comprehensive audit of public buildings will pull together information on the location of wheelchair-friendly entrances. Lane said that a GPS-based system could be useful if it used this kind of information.

He added that while he believes the technology could eventually have as profound an effect as SMS there are a number of technical issues to be resolved, not least the high cost of GPS and the difficulty of setting up an effective billing system.

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