The Road Wirer
the Road to Dynamic Space
by Mark Sedenquist
Writing about wireless communications remains a frustrating challenge. All I wanted to do back in 1994 was to log on to the Internet from anywhere in North America using wireless technology. Until I actually tried it, it seemed like a modest goal, something people in magazine advertisements had been doing for years. But they weren't, and, for the most part, I am still pursuing this grail. To be fair, remarkable advances have been made. In order to maintain a healthy perspective on these gains, and to make useful predictions about the future of wireless communications, I have coined the phrase "Dynamic Space." Here is my working definition of Dynamic Space:
1. Dynamic Space is a user-defined location that exists in a specific physical and/or virtual place. It is independent of the real-time, three-dimensional location of the user.
2. Users can be single individuals or groups, families, companies, governments, trade organizations, etc.
3. Communication of most information among users occurs in Dynamic Space, where the exact mechanism of the wireless transfer is invisible and irrelevant to the user in the same way that you can click here and see a picture of Marvin the Road Dog. You don't have to know or care why his face will appear on your monitor just because you clicked your mouse.
In other words, Dynamic Space is an invisible switchboard of infinite size. The Internet is one of its components. With this vision of Dynamic Space in mind, here's where I think we stand on the road to wireless connectivity.
My recent experience at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas taught me that, fundamentally, it doesn't matter whether I can unravel the mysteries of all of the conflicting wireless standards, protocols or platforms. The more important questions are, "Does X, Y or Z actually perform as expected?" And perhaps more importantly, "Is this a service that really will lead to the development of Dynamic Space?"
A dazzling array of electronic gizmos and gadgets debuted at CES this year. Many are designed to enable in-vehicle computing and telematics. Since telematics enjoys a variety of definitions, I am using it here to mean the means of delivering information and entertainment in any form to a mobile user. Information, including Internet content, graphical displays, and human voice may be provided by CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, Dynamic Software, voice recognition programs or live humans at a call center.
Telematic capabilities can include:
- Navigational services, (e.g. GPS)
- Audio/video (including DVD, AM/FM/SDARS/CD)
- Concierge services for routing, purchasing services and merchandise
- Internet content services, including modified Web pages and e-mail
- Voice- recognition programs
- Vehicle performance and monitoring devices
- Real-time road condition reports
- Connectivity devices including cellular telephones, satellite communicators, PDA's, and other personal informational devices including specialized data-enabled pagers.
There are two forces driving the advancement of telematics, government legislation and "P- Commerce," a new bit of jargon meaning location-based marketing. The government's contribution to telematic innovation is the FCC E-911 Phase II Compliance Regulation. As you may know, when you call 911 from an ordinary telephone, your location is provided automatically to the emergency operator. The new law requires wireless phones to provide the same information to 911 operators. The wireless telephone carriers in the United States have about eight months to submit their planned implementation schedule to meet this requirement. The deadline by which all wireless phones must be equipped with locator chips is (as things stand now) December 31, 2004. There are two principal strategies being employed to meet this FCC requirement.
The FCC, being a governmental body, is subject to the usual behavior of politics negotiation and compromise. The December, 2004, deadline may well have no teeth. But consider the ramifications of locator chips when combined with information-gathering devices imbedded in other telematic devices. Imagine the power of a commercial vendor who can a) locate a consumer stuck in a traffic jam and b) offer her the exact goods and services that she might be willing to purchase at that exact moment based upon a profile gathered from her driving habits and other purchasing data. Further, imagine that a variety of data centers have been accumulating information about the maintenance needs of her vehicle and can offer time and location-specific marketing for merchandise and services that she has indicated a willingness to purchase in the past.
This is one of many commerce scenarios that are being studied and hundreds of applications that are being readied for the implementation of "P-commerce." The P means place-specific, and there are many explanations for why all of us should embrace this apparent invasion of our privacy, most of which center around safety and convenience. While I am certainly an advocate for telematic applications, I also want to ensure that I will have the ability to consciously elect to engage the location-specific chip in any of my wireless devices. I have serious reservations about allowing anyone carte blanche information as to my whereabouts and my tire pressure.
I had the good fortune to try several of these telematic devices at the CES show. Not all of the services are fully enabled, since some of the underlying technologies have yet to be perfected, and in some cases, not much more that the concept has been developed. But several interesting devices have actually hit the road. The one aspect that does seem to be more or less constant is that nearly all of these options cost around $2000. For more information, check out the telematic offerings on the following websites:
- Navigation Mapping Companies This page is a listing of the major suppliers of navigation data and software including Etak, NavTech, and other world-wide firms.
- Alpine's Mobile Multimedia Station
- Pronounced Technologies' Eclipse Commander
- Magellan's 750 Nav Vehicle Navigation System
- Q-PC "Ruggedized" Windows 98 PC
There is a great deal of concern about telematic devices distracting the attention and focus of the driver. As a result, you will find that many of the applications are based on voice-activated menus. Another solution that I would like to see considered would be the ability to allow the dashboard display visible to the driver to display a wider range of information. I'd like, for example, to toggle between my tachometer, a route map, and a chart showing local weather.
NavTech is the supplier of map data used by most telematic application providers. In 2000 they will be updating their "Points of Interest" database with material provided by Fodor's. This gives me the opportunity for some commentary. While the editors of Fodor's may make excellent suggestions about places to visit, it is possible that I might want a different perspective say for instance data from www.RoadTripAmerica.com or www.roadsideamerica.com. In other words, I'd like to have the whole Web at my disposal, not just the contents of one travel guide.
The navigational programs are remarkable in their application of the GPS technologies but most folks I know do not require that much assistance in reading a road map. In most cases, a commuter will know the short-cuts and appropriate routing in much more detail than even a knowledgeable computer. Real-time road advisories about changing road conditions are still several years away, but the efforts of companies like InfoMove are very interesting. The types of road warrior services that I would like to see incorporated into the dream list would include real-time graphic displays of weather maps detailing severe weather locations and voice updates from the radio channels of school bus drivers. The 150,000 miles we have spent driving around the USA over the last six years taught us that, for obvious reasons, school bus driver channels can provide the best source of actual road conditions in a given area.
A virtual blizzard of products and developments were unveiled at CES, and I'll be sharing more thoughts and comments in the weeks to come. This is truly an interesting time to be participating in the development of the wireless world. One word before I go BlueTooth. Bluetooth technology is one of the bits of glue that will enable this world of wireless to develop, and I'll be talking about it in my next column. In the meantime, thanks for sharing this journey of discovery on the road to Dynamic Space!
January 17, 2000