Friday, March 19, 2010

Location based Everything

Location based Services and Augmented Reality are and will be the hyping technologies for the near future. Its time to revise a little what already happened and to wildly speculate of where the journey is going.

First I want to make clear, what is meant by location based, because it needs to be said explicitely: it means that your location is registered, and the longitude and latitude of your current position are sent to the web and depending on which service you use, your position is further processed. I know its probably clear to everyone what I just wrote, but I did so because I and want you to consider for a moment, what that actually means, taking all the privacy issues into account.

Ok, so now that you know that everybody might see your location online on Google Maps, let us continue with the actual article :-).

Location based Services come in a huge variety of flavours, some guide you to the nearest italian restaurants, including a rating of it, others display the nearest tweets that have just been typed into Twitter and again others implement some kind of gaming and social networking features (Hi Four Square). Basically its the same, you, as the user, are in focus of whats going on around you. Also the technology doesn't really matter, but what matters is the application of it.

It was only until I checked out Google's Latitude that I completely and totally recognised what consequences occur, when you publish your location or let your location be processed by any service. Latitude probably is the most useless of all location based services (useless in the sense of the benefit you have from it - compared to apps like AroundMe or Eventful - except when you are a professional stalker), it is simply displaying your current location as a nice blue dot in Google Maps. Also, if your friends are online, you can check out their location as well.

When I first saw the dots of my friends, some where at work, some where at home, some where relaxing in a park, I only realised the full meaning of publishing your location. If you think that sounds like the words of a completely paranoid idiot, then try it out for yourself! It does indeed feel a little touchy when you know that you can be watched by others (Imagine seeing the dot of a friend of yours being at home and seeing on Facebook his or her newest Mafia Wars or FarmVille updates, you pretty much exactly know, what he or she is doing and also where).

Of course this goes on, Google is not really known as a company that doesn't care about valuable data, meaning that your positions are pretty likely to be tracked and stored in your profile, so if you've been twice to a chinese restaurant, Google might advertise you with a suggestion to try a similiar restaurant, only a few streets away from your home. So this leads us straight to the next point: location based advertising.

I've read an article (see TechCrunch article on a start-up raising $5Mio VC and a Digital Beat article on one of Googles newest patents) a few weeks ago, saying that location based advertising is probably one of the next big things (meaning that such start-ups are pretty likely to raise millions of VC funding and will be eventually bought by one of the big players). Think of starting any iPhone App that is supported by ads and these ads are about stuff you can buy in shops just around the corner. So this IS definetely an interesting thing. Now you might ignore any ads that come with your iPhone Apps, but when it says that you get a special deal just around the corner and probably you can even use that ad as a voucher to get another discount, many people will be tempted to do just that.

Taking all this location based stuff one step further would lead us to location and TIME based everything. It would be useless to be advertised at 1am for a nice discount at the next H & M, when you can't really make any use of it at that time, so perhaps it would be better to be directed to the next Bar or Club where you get free entry or a free drink.

Additionally to your local time, your current position will be mapped more accurately ("interpreted"), its nice to know that your latitude is 48.15678 and your longitude 16.22456 and that the Bar that you are seeking has latitude 48.15200 and longitude 16.22978, but its better to know that you are in Main Street 3 and the Bar you are seeking is in Main Street 34. By the way such a reverse GeoLookup functionality is already available in the Google Maps API and is astonishingly accurate (and easy to implement) as a friend of mine demonstrated to me (thx M.).

To again take this a step further, it would be fantastic to know the kind of your current address. Is it a Public Building? Or is it a University? Or is it probably an Office Building? With StreetView and Maps and Google Earth, Google already has the Tools to map the meaning or content of a building onto its address and its Geo location.

This now, is not only interesting for any Augmented Reality Apps, but also for Google's Search itself. A few days ago I was googling for "Levante" and meant the restaurant not far away from my office. To my surprise, the restaurant really was the first entry in the result list. I had rather suspected that the first entry will be the Wikipedia article or any other article on the geographical and historical meaning of Levante.

Why this observation is not useless? Well, first, because it is a restaurant just AROUND ME, which means near my current location. Second, it was araound 11:30am, so definetly time to think about where to spend the lunchbreak. And third, because I was in an Office Building. So with these 3 things added, current location, local time, and "interpreted" position, the odds where near 100% that I was looking for the restaurant and not for the Wikipedia Article on the historical and geographical details of it. If it would have been around 9am and my interpreted location would have been a University with the next Levante restaurant more than 5 miles away, then the odds would have been near 100% that I would not have been looking for the restaurant.

So if any location and time based App or the Google Search Engine, take all that into account, along with a personal profile of you, with all your previous searches and activities it gets quite clear why 1), Googles Chief Economist Hal Varian, called the Job of a Statistician as the "sexiest" Job for the next years (see the NY Times article) and 2) There might approach the day where all Apps are not one step behind you, in suggesting ads and stuff to you, but one step ahead of you.

I think it will be quite near in the future that Google is really implementing all these things into their search engine (what would mean an iGoogle for everybody, if you want or not; see the Wired article for how mighty Googles search algorithm already is, and how they are constantly improving it) and that also any Augmented Reality and Location based Services will be implementing everything into their applications.

I already mentioned some of my privacy concerns at the beginning of the article, but that was just about location, but taken, time, interpreted location and personal-history, into account the privacy issue is yet taken to another level, but which I am not going to discuss in this article (maybe in another one called "1985"....but wait....thats already the title of book by Anthony Burgess, so I'd perhaps take 1984^2). Its up to you to consider the pros and cons of it!