blog.asurroca.com my personal blog

June 11, 2006

Location, Location, Location

Filed under: reviews,technology — Alfonso Surroca @ 8:35 pm

If you’ve ever found yourself in an unfamiliar locale wandering around looking for a gas station, a good place to eat, or something to do, then the notion of location-based services is great. Unfortunately, it’s an idea whose time hasn’t quite come. Or has it?

Enter Loki, a new Firefox extension that brings the power of GPS-based services to the rest of us by using what parent company Skyhook Wireless calls WPS, or Wi-Fi Positioning System. This system operates on the premise that while few people have GPS devices, most have a wireless device in their computer. Skyhook’s software pinpoints your signal’s location by using the locations of other signals as beacons, something like the way you can triangulate the location of a cellular signal based on the location of nearby cellular towers.

Let’s ignore the potential privacy issues of potentially broadcasting your (almost) exact location and focus on the extension. Once installed, the extension determines your longitude and latitude and uses that location for any web service which normally asks your address or zip code. Microsoft’s Live Local mapping service has had a similar function for some time now, but despite being more transparent than Loki, I’ve also found it to be far less effective, only pinpointing your zip code. When I used Loki, it was able to track my signal to my neighborhood, about a block away from my home.

Returning to the privacy issue, even if you were being stalked by some unseen eye, they wouldn’t be able to know exactly where you are, just the general area. The privacy concerns associated with GPS-equipped cellular phones is greater, since they would provide far more accurate readings. But enough about that, back to the software.

Loki Toolbar

I’m not a fan of extra toolbars and like to keep my web browser’s interface as sparse as possible, but for now I guess I’ll just go with it. The Loki toolbar provides a bunch of functions based on your location, but provides little in the way of customization at the moment (something the developers are, however, working to fix).

Once you click on Find Me, Loki uses its blend of wireless triangulation voodoo (I mean, WPS) to track down your lon/lat coordinates. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time it does this, but more on that gripe later. There are a lot of buttons here, but some are obvious (like Email, which lets you e-mail someone your current location), so I’ll focus on the more interesting ones.

First off, there’s the search bar, which graciously allows you to choose from Google, Yahoo!, Ask.com, and a few other services to provide local listings and maps when searching from the toolbar. I chose Google (the default), since I’m most familiar with its mapping system, and found that it accepted the lon/lat information Loki sent, allowing me to search for business listings closer to me than if I’d just typed in my zip code.

Going back to the introduction, if I find myself sitting in an unfamiliar town at a T-Mobile HotSpot or (better) some unsecured Wi-Fi network with no map, no directions, and nobody to ask questions to (who wants old fashioned things like paper maps or asking fir directions? That’s so web1.0!) Well, now I can load Firefox, and search for the nearest, well, anything. This is absolutely a useful tool for people always on the go.

I’m a certified Flickr-holic, and I’m especially copious with my tagging. Geotagging your Flickr images can already be done a few ways, but admittedly it’s still sort of a hack. Not so with the Loki extension. Assuming you’re standing where you shot your photo or know the address where the photo was taken, all you have to do is go to your photo’s page on Flickr, click on “add a tag” and then flick the GeoTag button. Loki immediately fills all the pertinent geotagging information and you’re done. Great! Even better, a mobile version of Loki is in the works for Windows Mobile and PalmOS devices, so the legions of Treo users will soon be able to snap a photo and send it to Flickr with geotags and all.

How Many Services Are There?

In short, a lot. The catch-all Channels drop-down menu at the left of the Loki toolbar has a collection of some 40+ sites which use the location information. With this, you can quickly find anything from a nearby restaurant to the closest ATM machine. More importantly, the developers are working to make it more customizable, so that you can add your own additional location-based services to the Channels menu. While the option is present in this build, it is purely vestigial, allowing you to add a URL but nothing else.

And Also…

Loki’s features extend to the right-click menu, offering more transparent access to its service. For example, if you right-click an address, you can get driving directions to that address from your current location; or if you right-click on a product name, you can get local search results for that product. This is my favorite part of Loki since I’ve already expressed my distaste for superfluous toolbars and prefer things that work in the background, and I hope the developers work to provide more of this right-click functionality in the future.

I’m starting to think that 2007 may be the year of location-based services. We’re already used to using snazzy web2.0 mapping interfaces to find local businesses, cellular carriers are getting closer to offering location-based features, and there’s a growing number of sites (e.g. where.com and Flagr) built to harness your cellphone to do things such as tag photos and connect with friends. What Loki does is help tie these different sites together, thereby increasing the ease of use and providing an overall better user experience. It might not be perfect, but I think the Loki team is on to something here.

All in All

Like I said, it’s not perfect. For starters, Loki isn’t available for Mac users just yet, although they are working on it. So, for now, only Apptel Mac users dual-booting with Windows can use this extension. Also, in Windows, it appears to install an additional service needed to actually do this WPS stuff. In other words, this is not exactly as lightweight are your average Firefox extension. Loki also has an annoying habit of rechecking your location every time you make a new search, which is fantastic if you’re on the move, but bothersome if you’re stationary (a much more likely scenario). Furthermore, you need to stare at a dialog box that says “determining location…” for a few moments every time it does this. Hopefully, the developers fix this nuisance in a later version–I suggest relegating this message to the status bar or offering the option to eliminate it altogether.

However, all in all, this is one of the more exciting Firefox extensions to come in some time, and it’s absolutely worth a look. The fact that it takes your Wi-Fi signal and does something with it you might not have thought possible or even considered is fantastic. Apparently, Intel and Nokia are among the investors in Skyhook Wireless, so I’m betting that we’ll be hearing a lot more from Loki in the future.

technorati tags: mapping, location, software

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1 Comment

  1. […] I said recently that I thought 2007 could be the year of location-based services. But, after reading this WIRED article on O’Reilly Media’s Where 2.0 conference, I think it might just come even sooner. […]

    Pingback by asurroca » Blog Archive » Earth 2.0 — June 19, 2006 @ 3:34 pm

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