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Intel experiments with Wi-Fi as GPS substitute

Chipmakers are experimenting with using the wireless networks to triangulate an individual's location, especially in urban areas.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--The satellites that comprise the global positioning system can pinpoint a person's location to within a few meters. Intel is experimenting with ordinary wireless networks to see if the same job can be done on land.

Researchers at Intel are examining ways to triangulate an individual's location with Wi-Fi or cellular networks like GSM, said Ian Smith, a senior researcher from Intel Labs at the New Paradigms of Using Computers conference at IBM's Almaden Labs.

The main benefit of wireless networks is that they can locate someone in an urban environment. GPS often fails in downtown crystal canyons where tall buildings can block signals. By timing how long it takes signals to go from the satellites to a person, a handheld containing a GPS chip can determine that person's location.

While GPS determines only the latitude and longitude of an individual, wireless can also determine height and thus figure out what floor of a particular building a person is on.

"GPS is at odds with human civilization," Smith said, because humans spend most of their time inside or in dense environments. To help prove the point, he wore a backpack for 3.5 months with a monitor. It found that, on average, he spent only 4.5 percent of each day outside.

Boston's Skyhook Wireless already offers location services through Wi-Fi in some urban areas in the United States.

A wireless system could potentially reduce the costs of implementing location-based services. Adding GPS to a phone requires that the manufacturer add a chip. In a wireless system, the calculations to convert signal relay times into geographic location will get performed on a phone's processor (although for now, the FCC has mandated that phones in the future have GPS functionality). Not only does Intel promote Wi-Fi, it has recently begun to gain momentum in the market for cell phone chips.

Although the idea has been bandied about for years, the actual scenarios in which people might use these sorts of services are beginning to gel. In recent tests, parents said that they liked the idea of being able to determine where their kids are by punching a few buttons on a phone and looking at a graphical map.

By contrast, kids--conversant in messaging--didn't find it that interesting. Messaging, in fact, is apparently leading to the demise of doorbells in Europe, according to a new study from Georgia Tech. "Teens call and text message because that way you won't have to deal with someone's parents," he said.

Location-aware phones could also guide a vacationer to restaurants or other establishments similar to those they have at home by comparing the owner's usual haunts to reviews and recommendations found in a database pertinent to the cell owner's current location.

Intel will conduct trials in August in which about 20 people will record places they visit. The data will then be used to compile a recommendation list.

Privacy, of course, is a major concern, Smith said. A few years ago, Intel got stung when it put serial numbers on processors. Basic location services can also disclose embarrassing information; no one wants a phone that would disclose you've been in the local jail for a few hours. Consumers should have complete control over turning the tracking mechanism off or on, he said.

"We've made a decision to take the problem really seriously," he said.

However, GPS, which has been around for years, can actually pinpoint a person with more accuracy at the moment than Wi-Fi or cellular networks.

"The trickiness of triangulation (with wireless) is that the data is a little bit noisy," he said. Wireless systems also tend to work only where several antennas have been set up.

Nonetheless, carriers are searching for more services to offer customers, and ultimately that search will likely lead them to expand the applications and services that can run on a phone.

"There will be some hungry, hungry hippo, probably a No. 2 or 3 carrier that will become convinced that to grow they will have to open the box," Smith said.