The sixth edition of O’Reilly Media’s annual Where 2.0 conference wrapped yesterday, possibly the most exciting and definitely the most widely attended edition to date. The premise was consistent with that of previous years: citizen map-making democratizes our world, location is pervasive, and we can be assured of the financial value of geographic data and location-aware advertising. But there was something else going on, too, something new, complex and big: the realization that we need to build services that let people manipulate their world, not just learn about it.
Over the past five years, location has become part of our knowledge at a molecular level; every tweet, image, article and intent includes location information. But why, amidst all the technical advancements that have been made, does the hype center around check-ins and the simplest of geo tools? After all, I’m not suffering from Where 2.0 withdrawal because I want to get another swarm badge or data visualization API or even because I smell money. So why is my heart palpitating and why do I have four new business ideas?
So far, location-based services have been focused on helping people access more information. Yet there’s been no breakthrough success in friend-finding or place-finding applications. That’s because humans don’t want to understand our local environment better — we want to control it!
I believe the unspoken dynamism in this chapter of location and mapping is about reality-modding: intended modification of our environment — both real and virtual — through technology, including manipulation of the physical world via the virtual, and the virtual via the physical. This is not augmented reality or cinematic view, although the blending of the real and virtual is part of it. We want a read/write world.
Check-in mania foreshadows this. Earning mayorship through game play is one thing but checking in and having a friend show up to see you (a common occurrence) is quite another. It’s the 8-bit version of the StarTrek transporter. Twitter, too; I tweet “extra cabbage,” you come get it. While trivial, these examples point to a bigger opportunity in location application design at human- and city-scale, something to which Ben Cerveny’s work with VURB gets really close. The VURB is “investigating how our cultures might come to use networked digital resources to change the way we understand, build, and inhabit cities,” in the process pioneering collaborative redevelopment, responsive environments and urban interfaces. Very cool.
Here are three reality-modding enablers:
1. Cheap Sensors — Smartphones are a container for a growing number of sensors. Soon we’ll be able to track not just our locations but the spread of disease, pollutants, migration patterns, weather, etc. (Related video: Deborah Estrin, UCLA “Telling Traces”)
2. Behavioral Modification — Kati London of Area/Code Games credits satellites for turning our world into a game board, citing as one example a virtual pirate game that’s manipulated by real sharks swimming in the ocean. Indeed, app developers now regularly incorporate game mechanics and reinforce desired behavior through rewards, incentives and virtual goods. (Related video: Kati London Locative Gaming the Next 10 Years)
3. Abundant Geodata — Maps used to be a spatial canvas that we could fill in with places, landmarks and people. Now the data we collect is reshaping the maps themselves. For example, Waze is creating live maps that show the world in real time based on dynamic traces from mobile phones, and Twitter is able to create polygons based on tweet density — with enough density, a city would have a more accurate look at how neighborhoods shift over time. We can also process, store and distribute geodata to keep pace with the growing amounts of available information. (Related video: Othman Laraki, Twitter “Geostreams”)
The location-based services industry has matured — millions of people use them and millions more want them — and yet its possibilities remain largely unrealized.
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