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Wherever You Go, There You Are

Location-based services are big business. People are simply fascinated with knowing where they are, and the precision available today to the location-curious among us is nothing short of amazing. Whether leveraging the GPS constellation of satellites 12,000 miles above us, or using Wi-Fi access points to put users on a floor plan, location services are fun and fascinating. At a recent training seminar, I was treated to the back story of an interesting location app used at the famous American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Though this application is hardly the only one of its kind, it does impress with its scope and purpose, and reminds us what is possible when wireless access points are asked to triangulate and play the part of "indoor GPS."

Before we talk about the museum's cool app, let me share a bit of my own location-related frame of reference. I have been a long-time participant in Geocaching, which is a GPS-enabled outdoor treasure-hunting activity that has become huge all over the world. I've also used and written about Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS), a technology that combines amateur radio with GPS for real-time transmitted position updates. Years ago, I petitioned Cisco for a new feature for the Mobility Services Engine (MSE) appliance that I use to get location data relating to wireless client devices in my environment. I wanted to be able to get an alert on stolen devices if they came back onto the WLAN. Soon after Cisco enabled the capability, I was in the business of foiling crimes in progress and recovering stolen goods (AirWave's AMP also does this function nicely), as well as simply finding misplaced networked devices. A nearby hospital uses RFID on its WLAN to track the likes of wheelchairs and IV pumps. The value of location-enabled services is multidimensional, and often limited only by imagination.

Back to the American Museum of Natural History. To simply refer to the sprawling complex as a garden-variety museum would be a huge understatement. At more than 500,000 square feet and five levels, the museum is a cultural, scientific and educational center that draws visitors from around the world and has a staff roster that reads like a university. The museum also happens to have a WLAN made up of more than 300 Cisco wireless access points, and uses the same Cisco MSE I drive to provide the location parameter wizardry for its American Museum of Natural History Explorer app. While there are certainly lots of dumb floor-plan apps out there for the taking, the Explorer app at the museum creates a synergy between the visitor's iDevice (or borrow one of the 300 loaners) and the museum's wireless network, as explained to me by Kurt Kruegel, the museum's principal network engineer. I happened to share a training lab with Kruegel at a recent network training seminar we both attended, and his pride in this impressive utility was obvious.

Developed by Spotlight Mobile, the Explorer app can generate directions from the client's current position to any exhibit, shop or restroom in the complex. Preplanned tours can be invoked through Explorer, and museum exhibits and other features are presented effectively with accompanying text in a sort of sneak preview that helps you decide where you'd like to go next when simply wandering. The graphics are simply beautiful, regardless of what functionality you opt to leverage in the app, which can be downloaded and trialed to a certain extent away from the museum. The location accuracy is reported to be pretty much spot-on, and I can feel the wheels turning in my brain as I ponder how my own MSE might be leveraged for functionality that looks as nice as this first-class application.

As others who have written about the Explorer app have noted, there is no support for Android, which is a bit silly by now. As impressive as the Explorer app is to the right side of my brain, the left side takes offense with anyone who doesn't realize that it is a multi-OS mobile world these days. To not support at least the big two is certainly short-sighted, and even though I could borrow an iPod Touch (after leaving a $150 security deposit), it stinks to think my capable Droid is not invited to this party--especially given the projections for explosive Android growth in the near future.

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