Building a new navigation experience

The concept of expanding the power of a network through peer-to-peer (P2P) interactions has been applied in numerous areas – file sharing, mesh wireless coverage and messaging to name just a few. A company called Mexens is now using this technique to deliver an enhanced navigation experience for mobile users, combining a P2P network, GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular technologies to build a worldwide mapping system.

The service is called Navizon and it requires a Windows Mobile Pocket PC with GPS and either cellular or Wi-Fi connectivity. The application runs in the background, using GPS and cellular triangulation techniques to determine the exact geographic location of cellular and Wi-Fi base stations, relative the user’s current GPS position.

This becomes useful when GPS coverage is lost, as often happens in urban areas or inside a building, where the device is unable to establish a line-of-sight connection with the navigation satellites. When the GPS connection is lost, Navizon is still able to determine the user’s position using cellular technology and the database of cellular location information.

Jim Parsons, co-founder of Mexens, told PMN that Navizon can be thought of as a ‘software-based GPS’.

The service is currently available free of charge to those who choose to partipate in the community element and share location data with others. This is stored, with all the obvious privacy requirements, in a central database of geographical information and made available to other users, thereby expanding Navizon coverage through the power of network effects. A ‘solo’ version which does not share any location data is available for USD 19.99.

Of course, many cellular operators are already offering location-based services. Most of these use cellular triangulation techniques, while others are starting to utilise assisted GPS (A-GPS) to further increase accuracy.

However, the contrast between the approach adopted by Mexens and the services offered by operators is an interesting example of an alternative user experience.

Navizon actually brings together a very complex set of technologies, a large number of partners and operates on a global basis. This is the sort of undertaking which would typically favour an operator with significant financial resources and a dedicated product development team. As a small and innovative company, Mexens has chosen instead to leverage the power of the mobile community to build a compelling user experience.

Although the service is likely to remain small-scale because it is only applicable to a relatively small number of users, it provides evidence of the potential for individual innovators to develop ‘disruptive’ technologies which can span multiple wireless technologies.

It also raises an interesting point about the nature of how wireless users interact with the environment around them. By gathering information from cellular and Wi-Fi base stations, Navizon hints at the possibilities for expanding wireless interactions beyond personal communications and into a future where inanimate objects are part of the wireless network.

Gathering location data from these objects may only be the beginning. Why shouldn’t every object be capable of broadcasting information about its function, using either cellular or near-field technology?

The recent MEX articles about 4G have prompted considerable debate, raising the question of whether simply increasing the speed of a wireless network really represents a generational change. There is an argument that the next real revolution in wireless will be the extension of communications capabilities beyond individuals and into the physical environment which surrounds us.

Fabio Sergio, design interaction strategist, will explore some of these ideas in his INSIGHT presentation at MEX, entitled: “Augmented reality check.”

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