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GPS owners play high-tech hide-and-seek

Using global positioning signal devices, people in 43 states and 12 countries are "geocaching"--hiding goodies for one another and seeing who pinpoints them first.

Dave Ulmer decided to celebrate the end of government blurring of GPS signals last May by hiding a cache of goodies and posting details on its position to an Internet newsgroup. When someone replied to Dave's post three days later, saying he had found the stash, a new sport was born.

Geocaching has since evolved into a sport played in 43 states and 12 countries. This high-tech version of hide-and-seek involves looking for and planting caches--usually a logbook to record visits and trinkets such as maps, toys and food. The point of the game isn't what you find in the cache but simply finding it, using GPS (global positioning system) information supplied by the cacher. Once a cache is found, the geocacher can take something and leave something behind for the next person.

The sport even has its own Web site, where caches are registered and logs of geocachers who have found caches are kept.

Entering a ZIP code on the site gives seekers a list of caches in their area. Though the GPS positions are listed on the site, they aren't quite exact, which is where the fun in seeking comes in. The accuracy of position is to within 30 feet, and some hints are provided. There are also degrees of difficulty associated with a cache. Currently, there are 356 caches on the site.

Jeremy Irish left the failing dot-com he worked for to become Webmaster of the geocaching site. Irish estimates there are 2,000 registered users, but he guesses the actual number of geocachers to be two to three times that.

"I thought only tech people would be interested in this, but some people find they don't use their GPSs enough, so this is a fun way to get out of the house," said Irish.

GPS is a radio navigation system that was built by the U.S. Department of Defense for military use. In the late 1990s, GPS was opened to public use, but accuracy of signals available to civilians was limited for national security reasons. Under the government's "selective availability" system, GPS signals could at best identify targets as being within a 300-foot radius. Selective availability was halted last May, meaning GPS units now can pinpoint targets to within 30 to 60 feet.

The game comes at a time when the popularity of GPS units is at a high, according to IDC analyst Alex Slawsby.

"GPS handhelds are more affordable than before, and with selective availability turned off, they're even more accurate," Slawsby said. "So we're seeing this technology find its way into more cars and other devices within our everyday lives."

GPS technology will become a big part of everyone's lives as it is folded into wireless devices, Slawsby and other analysts predict. Armed with information about where subscribers are, a wireless carrier can send them information--such as reviews of restaurants and listings of events--specific to their location.

Palm users will get a taste of this in early 2002, when Garmin, a leading GPS handheld manufacturer, will unveil handhelds using Palm's operating system.