Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pushing the limits of GPS navigation

In the last few posts I have presented my thoughts on recent developments in mobile maps and related applications market, focusing especially on GPS navigation capabilities of mobile phones. Today just a brief reference to yet another option to consider: ALK CoPilot Live (for iPhone OS) - only US and Canada at the moment. iPhone version follows Windows Mobile and Symbian applications and I only mention it because it’s the first one marketed for under U$35.

There is a good range of options for getting road directions information on mobile phones, from basic and free Google Maps for mobiles, native iPhone and Nokia driving directions applications through to free, almost fully featured demo GPS navigation tool from NAVIGON and a range of inexpensive applications from all top GPS navigation service providers. As I already stated in my earlier post, mobile phones have become fully enabled GPS navigation devices, so not much more to be said on this topic unless we look beyond just “in-car navigation” and into augmented reality capabilities.

To kick start a new series of topics just a quick note about what does “augmented reality” concept mean. In simple words, Augmented Reality (AR) is a term referring to a capability of blending digital, computer-generated visual effects with real-time footage of a surrounding real-world environment. A practical example of implementation of this concept is a “Head-Up Display” in the latest BMW 7 Series Sedan:

[image courtesy of BMW]
“Head-Up Display presents important information - speed, navigation directions and alerts - directly in the driver's field of vision. The information is projected via the windscreen into the driver's field of vision, thus minimizing distraction. The virtual image appears approximately two metres away, at the end of the bonnet. The driver's attention stays on the road ahead and the eye strain of repeated refocusing is eliminated.”

There are also quite interesting early attempts to create augmented reality applications for mobile phones which I will review it in the next post on this topic.

Google Map Static goes V2

Google has just announced the release of new, upgraded version of static map. Functionality has been extended to allow encoding of polylines, drawing filled polygons, specifying marker locations as address as well as latitude and longitude coordinates, and referencing colours in 24-bit as well as 32-bit formats. V1 has been deprecated so, any applications using the original version will need to be upgraded to the latest version. Full documentation is availabe from Google site.

Static option of Google Map is very handy for those situations where bandwidth is an issue (eg. for users out in the bush on dial-up Internet connection or for mobile phone applications) or where there is no need for interactivity with the map. Although static map is originally intended as just an image service, some interactivity can be scripted to mimic basic functionality of Google Map proper.

For example, I have created a dial-up version of home page for users who find initial download of Javascript files and frequent refresh of multiple map tiles of Google Map proper too much to handle on their browsers. I didn’t have a chance yet to convert this application for use on mobile handsets but it will happen in the future. The new functionality options in version 2 extend the range of applications that could be developed on this platform. It definitely warrants a closer look as current Static Google Map is the closest thing to a “dynamic map server” (ie. a web service that would convert user data into an image representation and deliver it back as map tiles) – capability still missing in Google Map stable.

Via: Google Geo Developers Blog: Static Maps API v2: Encoded Paths, Polygons & Geocoding

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tom Tom GPS navigation in iPhone

It’s a sign of times. Mobile phones have become fully enabled GPS navigation devices. After early lead from lesser know GPS navigation companies, like NAVIGON, now major players are rushing to the market to catch up. Tom Tom has just released mobile phone enabled version of its navigation software for iPhone. This application is only available in Europe but the rest of the world will follow soon.

First impressions of Tom Tom’s iPhone navigation tool are quite positive. I’ll just highlight a few comments, after The Inquirer:

“onscreen mapping interface … is pretty much identical to every other TomTom device on the market”

“other makers have flashier interfaces …. but TomTom is sticking to the principle that less is more, plumping for speed and simplicity rather than gorgeous graphics and distracting bells and whistles.”

TomTom for iPhone works equally well in landscape or portrait modes, switching slickly between the two… [however]…as soon as you get a call… it defaults to portrait view.”

TomTom for iPhone stood up particularly well against its standalone siblings with route replanning taking around five seconds on average and the lag between map position and actual location being accurate to about 10 metres.”

“Where the App really shines is in the way it integrates with other bits of the iPhone's system and software… [in other mobile navigation applications] calls can cause the mapping system to fall over …[but]… TomTom seems to beaver away happily in the background … and it picks up where it left off as soon as you drop the line.”

As with other applications for iPhone, initial map download is a hefty 1.4GB. TomTom also sells a dashboard mount for the iPhone, enabling using the phone in the car the same way as traditional portable GPS navigation devices. Unfortunately, there is no free version of Tom Tom's software but relatively low price, in comparison to traditional devices, makes up at least partially for that omission.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Map Basics: Map reading guide

In one of my recent posts I tried to explain basic concepts behind map projections, coordinate systems and geodetic datum and outline characteristics of the ones used in Australia. Today just as short note about another handy resource that explains the concept of a topographic map and provides comprehensive instructions on how to use such maps with a magnetic compass or GPS navigation tools.

The booklet has been published by Geoscience Australia and is an excellent introduction for anyone interested in maps, orienteering or GPS navigation. National Mapping Agency within Geoscience Australia produces topographic maps that cover entire country at different scales. They are available for online use from

Monday, August 3, 2009

Google Flash Map goes 3D

Google engineers have just added "perspective" to Flash version of Google Map. Maybe it is not entirely 3D capability, as terrain height is not depicted, but the new functionality enables users to "flip" the map and view it in other than North-South orientation. Google keeps map navigation tools consistent across all platforms (ie. Javascript, Flash, Google Earth and Earth browser plug-in versions) so, if you used one, you will also be familiar with the others, although there are obvious differences in the core functionality of each version.

Another interesting feature of Flash map is smooth, continuous zoom. The map is still constructed from small image tiles so it is not as smooth as can be achieved with real vector data but the effect is reasonably good, especially for areas which have been visited previously and individual tile images are cached on user end. Try holding down the zoom plus (+) or minus (-) buttons to test the new smooth continuous zoom for yourself.