A number of companies have tried to adapt the browser metaphor to a variety of experiences. We really liked what Keyhole Systems has done with its EarthViewer software, and HP has come up with a new twist, which it calls Websign. In the late 1990s, one of the uses envisioned for either 3G phone services or GPS was the ability to walk by a store and be beeped with todays specials. Big thinkers thought this sort of advertising-on-the-go might reward the wired (wireless?) shopper with some special deals, while luring him into the stores retail aura. Unfortunately, it never really took off.The premise of Websign is simple. Lyon and Brignone have attached a compass and a GPS system to a standard iPaq wireless PDA, and attached it to a database stored on the Internet. Point your PDA west at an intersection, and a list of businesses pop up as hypertext links. "The purpose of this is to browse the physical world," Brignone said. In some instances, this technology isnt useful at all. Point an iPaq at a McDonalds, and any information the PDA will give you is pretty well redundant. But say youre out and about, touring a local city. Sure, you might be able to see a list of restaurant signs down each block, but it might be a little tiring to check all of the menus. Hopefully theyre online somewhereif they are, Websign will find them. The database is the tricky bit. Salil Pradhan, who oversees both Lyon and Brignone, said the company has talked to Keyhole about licensing the technology. (As our review revealed, EarthViewer allows you to click a button and overlay local restaurants, gas stations, and other points of interest on the virtual map. HP built a compass and GPS into the system; however, the researchers say the system might be feasible with just a cellular antenna array. Multiple base stations can triangulate a phones location, but determining orientation is impossible. The HP researchers say that even a compass isnt exactly precise, but its close enough to be feasible. HP says theyll keep offering periodic updates on their research. Well be keeping you posted.
The designers of Websign, HP researchers Geoff Lyon and Cyril Brignone, believe users are naturally curious about where we are, and what were looking at. The problem is that the Web can quickly tell you where you are, and what streets surround you; it cant usually tell you what it is youre looking at, and maybe whats over the horizon. Websign changes all that.