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How cutting edge geolocation can change everything

Q&A At South by Southwest, Geoloqi CEO Amber Case spoke to CNET about the state of the art in geolocation, augmented reality, and heads-up displays.

Geoloqi CEO Amber Case speaking during her keynote address today at SXSW. CNET,James Martin

AUSTIN, Texas--These days, smartphones seem like they're everywhere. And with their wide array of built-in sensors, those devices--iPhone, Androids, Windows Phones, and others--can provide us with more and more data about where we are and what's around us than ever before.

And yet, the devices sometimes still seem like they're caught in a very 1.0 era--they can tell us where we are, but that information may not be useful in any way beyond helping us get to where we're going.

But what if your iPhone could automatically give you your shopping list when you arrive at the supermarket? Or what if it could wake you up before you miss your bus stop? These are the kinds of features we've long been promised, but haven't been able to use.

That's where Geoloqi comes in. A new platform developed by a Portland, Oregon-based company of the same name, it is designed both as a user-oriented app, and a broad platform that developers can use to build apps that suit their own purposes.

This afternoon at the South by Southwest festival here, Geoloqi founder and CEO Amber Case gave a keynote talking about the state of the art in geolocation, and how new tools like those from her company and others are changing the world. But before speaking to thousands at SXSW, Case spoke to CNET about where this exciting technology has come from, and where it's going.

Start off by explaining Geoloqi?
Amber Case: Geoloqi is a location based platform. We have a whole real-time location solution using the native GSP off of your iPhone or Android, and we have SDKs, which make it really easy for developers or enterprise customers to drop it into an existing app or build a new app around it. The main thing is it takes care of all the things that are really obnoxious to deal with with location.

We offer storage of raw location data, that allows it to be queried, and gives it back to you in the form of real-time location-based analytics. The SDKs allow you to run background GPS without draining the battery significantly, and also allow you to set geofences and geotriggers.

Explain what geofencing is?
Case: Say you have a house and you draw a virtual geofence around it. It's completely invisible, it's like an invisible button and when their phone detects them as crossing the perimeter of that geofence, you can have something happen. So there's a geofence around my house, and when I go inside the geofence, it automatically turns the lights on, and when I leave, the lights turn off. The idea is that instead of having a physical button you press, the boundary is invisible, and you can do all sorts of things with it. So you can say if I'm not at the geofence defined as work by 9am, automatically text message my boss that I'm going to be late. You can set up these triggers on reality. You could put a geofence around a store with your shopping list, and when you get to the store, you get your shopping list.

Do you have to set that geofence up when you're at the location, or can you set it up any time?
Case: You can set it up from our visual trigger editor at any time, or you can programmatically import a bunch of information. One example is we took all the geocoded Wikipedia articles, a massive data set, and imported that into our system and set them up as geofences, So when you walk around town, you can use our sample app and anywhere in the world, you can get information based on your location. And instead of having to look at an app, or hold up an app, like augmented reality view, you just get pushed the information when you need it. So the whole idea is that the interface gets out of the way when you don't need and shows up when you do. It's all about letting people live their lives a little more instead of always being nose down in their technology.

Let's use that example of a supermarket. With the accuracy of an iPhone's GPS, how far outside the boundaries of the store would you have to set the geofence?
Case: You could set it and encompass the parking lot and you'd be able to trigger it quite well. We've taken the native, significant location updates and how iPhone and Android handled that, and amped it up and said, well, if you had your GPS running and sending up data to the server every five seconds, your phone would run out of battery. But if you figure out how to intelligently handle it, like if I get to a new area and there are geofences here, then turn on the GPS, or just slowly monitor in the background. Then it's able to converse battery plus get the resolution when it's necessary. We saw that this was a big pain in the industry. When we released a sample app, carriers and enterprises and governments and developers started showing up and saying, This has been a big pain for us, what a relief that somebody else is trying to solve this problem.

Can you explain a little more about geotriggers?
Case: They're called geotriggers or geonotes. Geonotes are just text you leave inside a geofence, but a geotriger can trigger anything in life, so lights to turn on in your house, or you can do a lot of machine to machine communication.

As long as it's hooked up to the Internet?
Case: Yes, any IP-connected device. So the whole platform is completely device and carrier and language agnostic. You could write your own wrapper on it with your own programming language. And the whole idea of this is to make it so it can be used over time. So we're not tied to whatever's great for this year or the next, but it will evolve over time with whatever the market is at.

I have to imagine there's been a lot of emergent behavior. Can you give me some examples?
Case: Our first customer was a personnel recovery company that makes sure that people deployed overseas don't get kidnapped or don't get into trouble. They said they'd been using physical GPS trackers, which require being charged externally, and which run out of battery really quickly. They're not very high resolution, and you can't send location-based notes, and there's no user interface on them. It's very tedious. All of their customers were asking for something that works on a smartphone. And so they just white-labeled our sample app right out of the box, and we have them set up on a big portal system so you can see where everybody is and they can be safe.

What are people doing with your SDK?
Case: We already have a number of people experimenting and building apps with it. A lot of them are location based deals and things like that. One of the apps was a report of if someone's dog went in the park, and you could mark the location and publicly shame them. Somebody made an app called Don't Eat That. They took all the restaurant inspection codes, and whenever you walk down the street, it tells you what not to eat, because the inspection codes are low.

I take a bus that is often late and I sometimes fall asleep on my way home. Could it alert me so I don't miss my stop?
Case: You could. Actually, that was one of the first ways that I used Geoloqi. I set up a geofence at the airport that gave me the address that I needed to go to and the transit instructions in a geonote and then I got on the bus and I had a geofence that triggered right before my stop that said, Get off the bus, wake up!

Can you explain what a cyborg anthropologist is?
Case: You take technology and humanity and you understand how they interact with each other. For a long time, it really didn't matter if a user interface was easy to use, because it was either for the military or the government and people just dealt with bad user interfaces. But as more and more people used technology, everything has completely changed. And it's going very quickly. So what a cyborg anthropologist does is looks at the relationships between humans and technology and how it affects us and objectively sees what the heck we're turning into because we're this species of human plus machine where we're symbiotically evolving each other. We choose to buy something and it continues to live and it evolves. Or we choose not to buy something and it goes away. So we're seeing this species of phone and this species of electronics evolve alongside us and augment our brains. And it's fascinating to look at. We also have a lot of future shock. You can look away for two years and the whole landscape has changed.

What would you like to see on devices that aren't on them yet?
Case: I'm so happy that they exist. The main thing the iPhone did is just compressed everything into one device. And because the interface is liquid, it can be anything at any given moment. I've been wanting this interface since the age of four. What I'm really looking forward to is a heads-up display. The problem is I don't want something that obscures my vision. I want the minimal amount of information to augment my life. I want to be buzzed to the right when I need to take a right on my bike. I don't even want to visually see it. I think that's the next thing.

You mentioned augmented reality before. What have you see that's the cutting edge?
Case: My favorite is non-visual augmented reality. There is this thing called the haptic compass belt, which is some buzzers you wear around your belt, and it always buzzes in the direction of north. And the guy who first wore it, in Germany, he noticed that he always knew his way home, he always knew which direction he was facing, and he had this whole high-level map in his brain of what was going on. I think that right now the state of AR is really cheesy and cheap and full of crappy polygons and is a useless piece of crap and a waste of time. In the future, transparent displays with minimal information and very good design that relaxes you and makes you a superhuman in control of your own reality instead of overwhelm you or wait for things to load are going to be important. Don't buy a HUD that obscures your vision and doesn't offer you a real-life backup. I think a translucent display is really important.

Is that going to happen?
Case: It's difficult to produce. I hope Google will be coming out with that. There will be a lot of revolutions until that is feasible. My favorite one is from 1978, Steve Mann had this 80-pound HUD at MIT, and he hated billboard. So he had his HUD recognize billboards, cancel them out and replace them with text messages from his friends. He'd go into a store, hate a brand, and he would cancel it out, and only see the things he wanted to buy. He called it diminished reality, getting rid of the parts of reality you don't want. That sort of thing is interesting, that's a good use of AR. It's helping you live your life, it's helping you feel like a superhuman, it's making you feel like you're in control of your world instead of seeing somebody else's messages all over the place. He had a lot to say about this stuff. This is the stuff he built 30 years ago that we are now just beginning to get to. His outfit cost $500,000 and it was several million dollars worth of research and development, and we're still not able to have the same thing he had.