Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Geo-location to centimeter scale...

Geo-location to centimeter scale...  This is a really big deal, assuming they can actually productize it at scale.  For my American readers, “centimeter scale” means accuracies on the order of a half inch.

If you're ancient enough, you'll remember the bad old days when the only way you could figure out where you were is to use maps, compasses, landmarks, sextants, and so on to get your position on the surface of the earth.  If you were skilled and had the right tools, you could locate yourself within about a mile, or within a few tens of feet if you had landmarks and a good map.  My dad taught me how to use USGS topo maps and a compass to figure out where we were when hiking, which I still know how to do.  But only if I'm lucky with visible, identifiable landmarks can I get my position within 50' or so.

GPS changed all that, and remarkably quickly.  A quick count tells me that Debbie and I own 8 devices that have GPS capability.  One or more of them is virtually always at hand.  That means that we can find out where we are on the Earth's surface to within about 20' anytime we want to.  It's effortless.  Most of these devices not only know where they are, but can also display a map to let us know very conveniently.  The map might be a road map, a topo map, or even satellite imagery of our surroundings.  It can be annotated with the names of stores, offices, etc.  It's hard to overstate what a revolutionary thing this is.  We all just take it for granted now that we can know where we are.  It wasn't so very long ago that was a very challenging thing indeed.

This new technology promises yet another such revolution, with a 100x increase in accuracy.  A mobile phone equipped with it wouldn't just know which house it was in – it would know where it was within a particular room, how high it was off the floor, and what direction it was pointing.  This accuracy will be an incredible enabler for autonomous devices.  To pick a trivial example: a robot mower, once “taught” about how your yard is laid out, will be able to mow your lawn without human guidance and (especially) without the large, expensive, and compute-intensive artificial vision systems and the like.  If they can get this technology down to GPS-like prices, it's going to pervade all sorts of gizmos – and change our lives even more than GPS has...

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