You can't hide; 'geotagging' will find you

Why your next camera phone will know its place

Cell phones have become the mother of all convergence devices, combining dozens of functions formerly found separately or on PCs.

Which leads one to ask: What's next? What technology will they miniaturize and cram into the tiny phones we all carry around?

An even more compelling question is, how will existing technologies be "combined" to produce powerful new features we can all use?

I think one of the most exciting and useful cell phone features of the near future is the automatic geotagging of photos on camera phones. People won't fully understand how powerful, useful and fun automatically geotagged photos will be until they start taking them.

What's geotagging?

Geotagging, also known as geocoding, is the insertion of latitude and longitude data into a file or document, such as a digital photograph. In the same way that the time and date are encoded into digital photos, data that records the location where the picture was taken can also be added automatically using existing standard file formats like JPEG.

Scientists and hardcore geotagging photo enthusiasts have been doing this for years, but it's been hard, slow and expensive. The most common approach is the use of special hardware that "logs" where a GPS device is at every moment. Later, software matches the exact time a photo was taken with the location of the GPS device at that same moment as seen in the log, and voila, the picture can be geotagged. But that process is obviously not easy enough to be useful to the general public.

Geotagging isn't just for experts. Consumers do it, too. Flickr added geotagging in August. It works by showing you a satellite view or map of any place on Earth, plus thumbnails of your uploaded photos. By dragging and dropping each thumbnail onto the location on the map where it was taken, Flickr geocodes it.

You can also use Trippermap Geotagger to employ the powerful Google Earth in a way that supports Flickr geotagging.

A product called the Jelbert GeoTagger attaches to a digital camera's flash shoe. When you take a picture, the GeoTagger captures the location via GPS -- even the direction the lens is pointed using an internal compass. Later, you can use third-party software to merge all that data with the picture files themselves. It requires that you buy a Geko 301 GPS receiver from Garmin.

Dozens of camera phones already sport built-in GPS, including the Nokia N95, RIM BlackBerry 8800 and the HTC P3600 Windows Mobile smart phone.

The GPS functions in these phones aren't hooked up to autogeolocating functions, however, but adding GPS to phones is the first step.

There is hardware and software for automatically geotagged photos, but nobody has put it all together in a warm-and-fuzzy consumer camera phone. But all that is about to change.

New technology

The march toward ubiquitous geotagging camera phones took huge leaps forward with some recently announced research.

ZoneTag, which is being developed by Yahoo Research and is already available in unfinished form online, is designed to help you tag photos for Flickr and upload them -- all from your phone.

Even more impressive, it can also auto-tag a location based on which cell tower your camera phone is using when you upload photos to Flickr. One advantage of this is that tower-based location works when you're indoors. The biggest disadvantage is that it works only on some phones and with some carriers. It's also possible to combine cell tower geolocation with GPS information. This points to likely approaches in future camera phones -- geotagging and location awareness using the best means available, including GPS, cell tower information and other data.

Microsoft Corp. unveiled a research project at its TechFest event this week that identifies your location using the picture itself. The idea is that thousands -- potentially millions -- of "landmarks" in a given city are indexed in a database and associated with exact coordinates. By taking a picture of one of the landmarks with your camera phone, the software sends that picture via your phone's data connection for processing. A remote mega-computer quickly identifies the building, and sends back location information to your phone about the specific location.

It's not hard to imagine a network like Flickr taking this to the next level, where individual users post millions of pictures that are geotagged, then those pictures are entered into the big database to be used in reverse for identifying the location of objects in the world through photo recognition.

A company called NXP Software has developed technology called swGPS that does in software what normally requires a chip, which it says lowers the cost, increases the speed and reduces the power demand of automatic geotagging -- perfect for tiny camera phones.

The geotagging vision

The geotagging ideal is for a digital camera or camera phone to always know its location, and automatically and instantly add the exact location to a picture's metadata, just like time and date are now added to all the photos you currently take. Location information can later be "read" by software that can do powerful things.

To do that, handset makers, software developers, carriers and others must all work together to support the greater cause of geotagging.

Invention isn't necessary, per se. All the technologies exist to make this ideal happen. Autogeotagging combines the use of a phone's camera, GPS and data transfer capabilities, as well as the ability of the camera to encode coordinate data.

One obvious use for geotagged photos is to organize online galleries by map. But automatically geotagged photos would enable you to

  • Perform enhanced indexed searches. If you need to find a single photo on your PC, geolocation readable by a search tool would be a huge help. At the time I wrote this, for example, I had 47,450 JPEG photos on my PC. Most of them have file names like "PICT0012.JPG," "DSC01814.JPG" or "IMG00015.jpg" depending on what camera or phone produced them. I often try, but fail, to find a specific photo. But if I could add geographic information, for example, tell my search engine to find all the pictures I took in 2001 while in Chicago, I would almost always find the pictures I was looking for.
  • Use your camera phone to remember locations, such as where you parked your car, or where you found a great restaurant. By geocoding the picture, you could later browse through photos, identify the location by sight, then have software on your phone pick up the location information and give you turn-by-turn directions to get back.
  • Use your camera phone to communicate locations. Take a picture of the front of a restaurant, then send that photo via text messaging to a friend. Simply type "meet me here!" and the other person's phone could read the geotag of the photo to receive turn-by-turn directions.
  • Send postcards that automatically place themselves on a map. Everyone likes to share travel stories and photos. Geocoded vacation snaps would let software automatically place them on an online map. Isn't this how you'd like to share your vacation snaps?
  • Upload pictures to your GPS, and have them autoassociated with waypoints. That way, you can choose common locations, such as "home," by simply selecting one of the photos on your device, which is faster and safer than typing in an address.

Camera phones that automatically geotag photos -- as well as other cool and related products like digital cameras that geotag, GPS devices that take geotagged pictures and others -- are coming to a pocket near you. First they'll show up in the high-end, "prosumer" market, and be used by gadget freaks, camera nerds and geocaching types. But soon enough, geotagging functionality will become standard fare in most cameras.

I don't recall where I was when I took my first film photograph, my first digital photograph or my first camera phone picture. Do you remember your first photos?

I do know this: You'll definitely remember where you were when you snapped your first automatically geotagged camera phone picture. The picture itself won't let you forget.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

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