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TECHNOLOGY FEATURE

Navigation made easy: PDAs for dummies


Marc Winkelmann | April 7, 2004

It seems that everyone is talking about navigation systems for their cars.

Yet pedestrians also get lost sometimes, and that includes at enormous trade fairs such as the CeBIT technology exhibition in Hanover, Germany.

That's why Deutsche Messe AG, the operator of the fair, offers a "fairgrounds guide." In connection with a handheld computer, it shows visitors their way around the enormous property. But the technology works in other settings too. When linked up with a GPS sender, a PDA can show its owner his exact position, even in strange cities or the forest.

Personal Digital Assistants have long since made their move out of the realm of mere notepads. The once clumsy devices have developed into elegant mini-computers priced between 90 and 1,500 euro. Depending on what options they include, they can turn on a stereo, take photos, answer e-mails, and play back music. Some current models can also offer maps for finding the right way.

This last function actually works quite well, says Oliver Stauch of the Stuttgart magazine "Connect": "Most map materials are intended for cars, and don't show every curb you might encounter." According to the expert, however, "The maps will also do for pedestrians and hikers."

A selection of digital pathfinders can be found on the Internet, on sites like "pdassi.de." The site's homepage promises more than 250 city maps. Downloading the atlas for a region costs between 10 and 20 euro, depending on size. The software can search for exact street numbers, calculate the distances between two locations, and show points of interest. These include train stations, restaurants, museums, and dance halls.

The number of recommendations and points of interest are naturally strongly dependent on the size of the city. It's also important to note whether the program can harmonize with the operating system on any given device (Palm OS, Pocket PC, or Windows Mobile).

"Our maps are between 4 and 64 megabytes in size and require a corresponding amount of space," explains Marcus Polster from the provider envi.com. That is not a problem for most current models.

Only the popular Palm Zire model with its restricted capacity cannot handle it, says Polster.

Another provider is Falk Marco Polo Interactive. The publisher offers around 40 city guides on its home page, each intended for use in the inner city. The software, priced at a cost of about 15 dollars per city, provides addresses and can show the shortest path to a desired goal. It can also provide information about hotels, restaurants, cinemas, and shopping malls on the way.

For those who prefer even more comfort, it is possible to expand a PDA into a real GPS receiver. The Global Positioning System contacts satellites every few seconds to determine its current location and then shows its findings on its display. This may work flawlessly in cars, but requires somewhat more compromise when used on foot.

"Portable GPS receivers require a lot of power," explains Thomas Mittmann, product manager for Falk. Oliver Stauch confirms this as well: "You can't take a power cable with you while on the road.

It's crucial to determine how the receiver is powered." One good option is batteries that can be swapped while on the move if they run out. For those who want to take a longer hike in the country, a "standalone" device may be a better option.

These hand-held devices with a built-in GPS receive can be purchased at reasonable prices - starting at 150 dollars - but are unable to depict a map on their own. The PDA handles that. In exchange, a standalone's batteries last much longer, indicates Tobias Bischof. He operates a German Web site, www.pocketnavigation.de, that has been testing GPS devices for three years now.

Another good alternative are so-called GPS mice, Bischof reports. They use Bluetooth wireless technology to keep in contact with the organizer. These receivers can be found for around 200 dollars in sizes and shapes comparable to a computer mouse, although they shouldn't be kept in a pocket.

"GPS receivers must be affixed on the outside of a jacket or backpack or else they can't maintain contact with the satellites," Bischof says. There are already a number of applications of this celestial remote control.

Many hikers, for example, can record their exact routes while they are still on the move.

Other GPS fans, so-called Geocatchers, have turned proficiency with GPS navigation into sport, organizing digital scavenger hunts.

Nor have all the possible urban uses been exhausted. "I believe that down the road it will be possible to offer virtual city tours for PDAs, with spoken information," says Tobias Bischof. Finding the right way to the sights will be handled by the GPS system, of course. –Sapa-DPA


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