A tool finding its way nearly everywhere

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2008 - 9:47 PM

The popular GPS gadget is changing how many of us navigate our everyday lives.

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Bill Roehl of Apple Valley is a geocaching enthusiast. He said he enjoys the satellite-aided treasure hunts because he gets to see “new places, traveling the state and the country.” hunting. Roehl, an admissions employee at Century College, said he enjoys the satellite aided- treasure hunting to see "new places, traveling the state and the country." He's holding a portable Garmin GPS unit.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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It's becoming harder to get lost, and in a few years it may be nearly impossible.

For Bill Roehl, 29, of Apple Valley, that day is already here.

He uses his handheld global positioning system -- better known as GPS -- to find restaurants in Minneapolis or to get to his favorite $4 parking lot for Twins games.

"With all the one-way streets in downtown Minneapolis, it's nice not to have to worry about getting there," said Roehl, whose friends find GPS equally valuable for returning to favorite fishing spots or deer-hunting locations.

Like many new technologies, GPS has taken several years to find its way. But with prices dropping, unit sales have skyrocketed, more than tripling last year. GPS uses radio signals from satellites more than 12,000 miles above the Earth to determine a unit's location to within 20 feet, as well as speed, direction and altitude.

The directionally challenged (you know who you are) can consult their GPS units for turn-by-turn advice. Men can indulge their desire not to ask strangers for directions. Hikers can follow GPS directions as if they were a trail of bread crumbs leading back home.

Greg Secaur talks to his unit, dictating street names he's trying to find. "The GPS then tells me where to turn," the 35-year-old Minneapolis resident said. "That was a big selling point for me, because I don't want to have to look at a map while driving."

GPS even has its own sport, called geocaching, in which an item is hidden in a public place and competitors must find it only by its coordinates. The coordinates are posted on websites, such as this one at the Minnesota Geocaching Association (www.startribune.com/a3945) -- but you must log in to get the coordinates. Players then find the spot and discover the cache, hanging from a tree branch or hidden behind a rock, then sign a logbook to show they found the spot. There is prestige, but no reward, in being the first to find an item.

The association has about 500 members, said Roehl, a former board member. There are about 6,700 geocache hiding spots in Minnesota, and the sport is so popular that new geocaches typically are found by someone within 15 minutes, he said.

Still those kinks

Obviously the surging sales are about more than games. The average price dropped 46 percent last year, to $286, from $530 in 2006, according to the NPD Group, a New York-based retail sales tracking service. Retail sales last year (not including cell phones or factory-installed vehicle units) rose 134 percent, to $1.6 billion, making GPS the sixth-largest category of consumer electronics.

That's not to say that GPS units are foolproof. Most have trouble getting signals when there isn't a clear view of the satellites, such as inside buildings, among downtown skyscrapers or in dense forest. Some units compensate by remembering the last fix they had by satellite and working forward from that.

And GPS directions are only as good as their computerized maps are accurate. In one Texas city, the GPS kept trying to route Secaur around a newly opened street because the street didn't exist on the GPS unit's map, which was two years old. Updates for maps can cost $50 to $100.

In addition, current GPS units "do not give directions the way humans are used to receiving them, which is by using landmarks," said Ross Rubin, a consumer technology analyst at the NPD Group. "We've yet to develop systems that can deliver instruction such as, 'Make a right at the second light.'"

Some shortcomings, such as up-to-date maps, may be solved by next-generation GPS units that are connected to the Internet by cell phone networks, said Phil Magney, president of Telematics Research Group, an automotive electronics research firm in Minnetonka. Besides providing downloads of new maps, a cellular connection could convert a GPS unit from being a mere map reader into being an on-the-go travel aid that provides traffic reports and Google searches while enroute to its destination. Magney predicts the cell phone eventually will be the primary way people get GPS services, and as a result, GPS market leaders Garmin and TomTom will be displaced by cell phone manufacturers such as Nokia, Motorola, LG and Samsung.

Secaur already is sold on GPS connectivity. He likes the Bluetooth short-range radio connection that links his unit and his girlfriend's cell phone, allowing them to answer calls in the car without searching for the phone.

"If the phone's in her purse, the call comes up on the GPS unit on the dashboard," Secaur said. Or the couple can look up a restaurant's location with the GPS unit, then press a button on the system to call the restaurant via the cell phone connection.

Soon, the world

As a result, connectivity will grow rapidly, Magney predicted. GPS computer chips will soon be found in all cell phones (only some have the chips today), and in five to 10 years all new cars sold in the United States will have GPS chips, he projected. Just 12 percent of new vehicles were equipped with them last year, but factory-installed units still cost about $2,000, Magney said.

Besides providing convenient information updates, GPS units in vehicles also "will make it increasingly difficult to steal a vehicle because it will have a tracking device," Magney said. Already thieves have a hard time stealing vehicles equipped with newer versions of General Motors' OnStar emergency locator service, because the units are difficult to disable, Magney said. In addition, OnStar will help police by remotely turning off the ignition of a car that's being pursued.

While some might see GPS as an intrusive technology that compromises personal privacy, Magney predicted that a generation raised on sharing personal information on MySpace and Facebook websites won't worry as much about privacy as older consumers might.

"While privacy will always be a concern, people are now willing to give up a certain amount of privacy to save money or get added comfort, convenience or security," Magney said.

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553

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