Fishers, golfers join the rush to GPS

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Mar. 24, 2002    

Fishers, golfers join the rush to GPS.

GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEMS SPREADING IN EVERYDAY LIFE

By May Wong, Associated Press

Per Enge remembers the days when global positioning system devices were the size of microwave ovens and were temperamental. They had to wait for passing satellites to get their bearings.

Considered one of the pioneers of GPS, the Stanford University professor never imagined back then -- more than two decades ago -- how the technology would improve while shrinking in size and cost.

Now, GPS receivers are built into all kinds of things.

Cars. Watches. Cell phones. Handheld computers. Soon, maybe even a microchip implant for humans.

Once strictly a government tool, GPS was quickly adopted by pilots, boat captains and map geeks as the navigation system -- based now on a network of 24 satellites -- became available for civilians around the clock.

Now there's a crop of GPS-based devices that will help you find your child, car or the best fishing spot.

Global positioning devices receive radio signals from satellites to tell users where on earth they are.

Coupled with software and mapping programs, the devices pinpoint locations by altitude, longitude and latitude to within a meter of accuracy.

``It's stunning,'' Enge said. ``In the beginning, the expected marketplace was 40,000 receivers -- total -- for military use. Today, we build 100,000 receivers a month, and most of it isn't for the military.''

Wherify Wireless just introduced a GPS car-tracking device and a GPS-enabled battery pack that can turn a cell phone into a personal locator. In June, the company plans to start selling a wristwatch-like device that can help parents find their children or track down a lost Alzheimer's patient.

Soon, Pulse Data HumanWare will sell a portable GPS navigation system that tells sight-impaired users how to get to more than 15 million ``points of interest,'' such as museums and amusement parks.

Blind since birth, Carrie Schieu, 24, of Los Angeles, can't wait to use it. ``I stick to routes I know because I don't have to rely on others for help. This will help me be a little adventurous and go other places I haven't been.''

The GPS market in the United States accounted for $4.2 billion in revenue and 5.3 million units shipped last year, according to Allied Business Intelligence, a market research firm.

Already, golf courses are outfitting carts with GPS systems to help players measure distances between shots. Automakers are offering in-dash navigation, allowing drivers to get directions or find the nearest restaurant.

Farmers are using GPS for precision mapping of crop yields and to keep their rows straight. Wilderness firefighters are starting to use handheld computers with GPS to enhance tactical plans.

Even veteran GPS companies such as Trimble Navigation, Garmin and Magellan, now owned by Thales Navigation, are expanding beyond their traditional marine, aviation and outdoor enthusiast markets.

Garmin will soon introduce two-way radios with built-in GPS, allowing groups of users to know where their buddies are. A new Magellan GPS module will hook onto a Palm handheld.

Applied Digital, which makes microchip skin implants that contain medical information for hospital scanners, is developing a GPS implant that would allow satellite tracking of an individual's every movement.

Technology advancements as well as the explosion in cell phones and handheld devices are helping to turbocharge a GPS market that analysts say has been growing slowly, at best, over the years.

Five years ago, SiRF Technology, the leading GPS chip supplier, produced a chipset the size of a playing card. Today, it's as small as a thumbnail.

Recreational handheld GPS devices, which first sold for $3,000, now sell for as low as $150, though they are not as precise as the $10,000 advanced systems for professional surveyors.

GPS devices have also become more accurate.

Several years ago, navigation systems would take a while to cue up a location. Drivers could be traveling five minutes in the wrong direction before the system would alert them to the mistake. Some would even tell motorists to make a U-turn on the highway if they missed an exit.

Another factor for GPS growth is the government ``E911'' mandate requiring wireless carriers to pinpoint locations of 911 cellular phone calls.

Companies such as Enuvis are working to improve GPS so receivers could work indoors and in so-called urban canyons -- downtown areas with tall buildings that have long acted as barriers for GPS signals.

``We imagine a world one day where you'll never lose anything and nothing will ever be lost,'' said Michael Kim, president of Enuvis.

Not everyone is as optimistic.

``There are a lot of novel uses for GPS and everyone wants to put them on every Alzheimer's patient,'' said Will Strauss, a principal analyst with Forward Concepts. ``But whether it'll be a lucrative market remains an open question. Will people pay for a device and service to find Aunt Wilma?''
 


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