IPS: The GPS of the Future

Who doesn’t love GPS? It’s a great way to get directions, check where you are, and track everything from airplanes to people. Right now, GPS leaves us with one major drawback: the system uses trilateration (not triangulation) of satellite signals to find your position, but these signals have a hard time getting indoors without degradation. This means that while we can check where we are in the world very accurately, we cannot pinpoint our exact location in a specific building. Because of this, lots of time and money has recently been put into IPS (Indoor Positioning Systems). IPS uses the same concept of trilateration, but with signals like radio waves or WiFi in order to calculate your position indoors with confidence up to a few centimeters of error.

Now that IPS technology is progressing at an impressive rate, the question is: how can we use this for digital humanities? My idea is that IPS would open up the world of location-based information. For instance, if you were walking around the Quadriporticus (or any other building), IPS could track where you are in the building as well as orientation and push information to your phone, iPad, or Google Glass. For instance, you walk into a room with a ruined wall, and a picture you made of the predicted complete wall as well as all of your notes on the wall and a description of the room pop up on your Google Glass. Essentially, this creates a dynamic search system of all of your location-dependent data and makes it so that you don’t have to sift through this huge amount of information yourself.

The Museum of Science has already adopted a crude implementation of IPS called ByteLight (http://amt-lab.org/blog/2013/02/technology-review-bytelights-indoor-positioning-system-at-bostons-museum-of-science). Instead of using WiFi, they use LED lights. The lights in each area of the museum flash at a unique pattern. This flashing is too fast for humans to notice, we just see a static light, but for smartphone cameras, it recognizes the pattern and knows what part of the museum you are in. Now, the app can push information to your phone about the exhibits around you. This is great because information about science is updated very frequently and museums can’t be constantly changing the physical written descriptions of each exhibit, but they can certainly update the virtual information very easily.

Pretty soon, the technology will have advanced far enough so that every building in the world will have IPS systems installed so that no matter where you are, you can always get information about what you are looking at. This would be a great leap for the digital humanities, but of course it has also been met with a healthy dose of controversy. The idea that you can be tracked down to the foot no matter where you are, even if you are inside, has many people on edge. This could easily be exploited for shady reasons. For example, knowing exactly where you are in say a mall or a store can allow companies to provide uncomfortably targeted advertisements. Also, if a criminal, or anyone really, was able to hack this information (and they definitely could), they would know exactly where everyone is at all times; their own Marauders Map. That sounds like a thief’s holy grail, or the government’s key to the ultimate stalking. In other words, you can say goodbye to your privacy. Whether this will hinder the growth of this field is yet to be seen, but I believe IPS will play a large part in many areas of the future, digital humanities included.

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