Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Virtual Notes in the Real World - iPhone

As promised with the last post on Google’s Latitude, I spend some more time on other options. And actually it can be said up front; Latitude is boring whereas other applications can be very exciting.
Sorry, I had to mention this.As discussed in a comment last week Latitude is probably not meant to be cool. I now understand it more as an additional data service Google provides. A service that especially targets a new market of location based information. I assume Google plans to get people to use it, but then to involve third party companies to “use” the location data to target them specifically. This will most probably include Google itself, for ad placements forexample.
Any way this is only speculation and others might be more of experts in this field. There is a huge discussion on this topic, including some horrific stories about privacy and stuff.
But this was about other options for location based interaction. From the iPhone based tracking, the step towards a web based tracking is not far and the set of additional options is enormous. Only starting from a simple message or chat tool right up to location based tags and content such as photographs. The limitations of gadget based tracking are obvious, it is as if you are talking to your self, a rather introverted and singular recording of spatial movement. The web based option on the other hand offers instant updated and interaction.
I have been testing Brightkite and MapMe the last few days and I am just blown away. Not necessarily with the interface, the options or the features, but more by what a location based social networking tool could be. Facebook is so 1957 compared to this. The exciting thing is probably that you can take it with you and that where you are actually influences what you see, on the little screen of course. On the other end the information you ad to the network has this same dimension too. So you get actually quite easily in touch with new people, if used on a mobile device, because you constantly come across in real space other peoples digital junk (positive).

Image by UrbanTick - Screenshot history page with timeline on the top

But to start from the beginning, how does it work, what can you do on how does it feel? First we look at the MapMe application. It is developed by John McKerrell. It is a place to store your location and share it with friends. Like Latitude it has a main page on which it shows your location on a map. This map is based on Open Street Map data. A big awful yellow marker has written on it “I am here”. Maybe “ME” would do it as the service is called mapME? The big problem is the colour full approach of the open street map. It makes it really hard, if not impossible to actually see the location dots other than the big yellow box. Have a try on the image above, can you spot the greenish-brown dots? At least in London this is the case, because it is so dense. Somehow the colours on MapMe appear brighter than on the original OSM page.
A number of sources can be used to feed the location into the application. Through email with FireEagle, Twitter, Latitude, RSS feed or InstaMapper. This variety is great, although some seem rather crude. Like email, but then you think, there might be some devices that update positions via SMS or email, if they are not based on the rather new concept of free unlimited data access, so yes, great option.
The second cool add-on here is the timeline, hidden in the history tab. It makes the past locations accessible in a timeline. It is based on the Smile timeline code on Google Code. It is an interface based on horizontal bands that each are based on time units. One is the year, then the month and then the day, even the hour can be added. By pulling the bands one can navigate in time. The location points are then displayed on both, the band (as dots or lines) and on the map. The two stay in sync while moving through time. Brilliant feature. This is probably the first feature you will miss on Latitude!

Image by UrbanTick - Screenshot MapMe

That’s about it on MapMe. Unfortunately I have not been able to find any of my friends on this network, as it only allows you to search by username and if you don’t know, you don’t know. So if you are on MapMe please ad me as a contact! Was just looking for a direct link to my profile, but could not find anything so search for UrbanTick.
The link page is actually the history page. So here is my link then - UrbanTick.
It is really not so much of a socializing tool as a personal recorder, for witch it works brilliantly. It actually offers and developer API to add to the existing application and also lets you access the recorded data. Information about this is on the mapme blog.

If we move over to Brightkite this is completely different. It is a fully grown social networking tool. It is like facebook having attached a different design. Surprisingly there is no map! Not that facebook would have one, but if the service is location based the first thing to think about probably is a map. In the discussion board, what a surprise, there is a tread about this and the reply by Martin May one year ago was “That's coming...the map is kinda clunky right now. We have great plans for it, but it will take us some time to get everything in...it's beta, after all.” So there is still no map and it is still Beta, but it is still cool. You know maybe not having a map makes it more interesting. On the iPhone I have to say, there is the option to click on things and it would open the location in the maps application. There is actually the same button for the webtool. A map can be accessed through an individual post or location. It even embeds Google Street View to give you an image of the location beside the post.
Having said that there is one really cool feature that almost makes up for the missing map. It is possible to export the posted contents as a kml file to Google Earth or link it as a RSS feed. An it includes not only your stuff, but your friend’s posts as well, great. Guess you could simply put that feed into the yahoo pipes and have it on a map.
The really big thing here is it the location based information that you can access contend through. You can literally run into a comment or an image! The information filter is not only based on your friend network but also on the location, close 920m), block (200m), neighborhood (2km), area (4km), city (10km), metro (50km), region (100km).

Image by UrbanTick - Screenshot Brightkite web app distance filter

This becomes really interesting if we take the aspect of time into account. I thought about this when I posted a random picture of something I simply had in front of my lens, a construction site on the road. Now I am able to look at images other people have posted in the same location from before the construction started and people will pas by this location in the future and see my image of the building site even though the construction has long finished. Meaning that it builds op an immensely rich database of location based everyday information over location and time. A similar thing is the mobile flickr “around me” service. If you use flickr on a mobile device it will give you the option to filter contend based on your location, it is cool, but does not offer the control of Brightkite.
A specification of this is the save a location tool, where you can mark a location as special. It is a place mark and can be used to tag a restaurant for example. If you write a review or only leave a note how the meal was others can pick it up.
The iPhone app can be downloaded for free and is a must have. It is simple but offers a lot of features. There seems to be an issue with the bottom line links. On my phone the first instance shows two icons on top of each other but only one can be accessed. The “request“ button is somehow behind the ”I am ...“ button after I clicked on the ”more” tab.
So again if you are on Brightkite give me a shout!

Image by UrbanTick - Brightkite for iPhone application screen shorts

The only problem with these tools, applications and software really is the real space experience. I found myself in the last few days sunken into my iPhone and being kind of absent from the environment around me. Although I was in a way deeply involved in the here and now, the past and other users experience of the same place I would have sensed. My experience was not too different as looking at Google Street View from a remote location. A rather dull and emotion less consumption of something that is being sold to me as a real location while being a bunch of pixels.
It has a lot of qualities and interesting aspects hat are not yet explored to the limit, but there is a down side to it as that the mobile use takes you out of the real world into the pixel world and vie versa while the benefit is not quite clear.


mcknut said...


Interesting article, plenty of valid criticisms of mapme.at there, we're trying to improve things as much as possible but have lots to get done!

I think basically everything you mentioned is something we're aware of and are intending to "fix" in the future. I thought I would mention though that we consider your "History" page to be your profile page, so if you want to link to that then people should be able to find you, this is true whether you've decided to share your location to the public or not.

fan said...

Hope it did not come across as negative criticism. I really like your stuff and was only thinking about what I would love to have. I will put in the link to the history page.

Sprouticus said...


Just wanted to say this is a great post with some very good points. We've been working on some pretty cool things with mapping. It's taken a little longer than expected because we don't want to just give users something that looks cool and adds little value, we want it to be much more than that. :)

Glad to hear you are enjoying the iPhone app, we have some cool things in store for that as well. We've already submitted a fix for that overlap bug, so we're just waiting on Apple as usual. In the meantime you can go to More -> Edit and drag requests down to the tab bar for a temporary fix.

Lesley Yarbrough
Community Manager

Anna Martelli Ravenscroft said...

Thanks for reminding me of BrightKite. I haven't used it in a while. I've got the iPhone app now and put it next to Latitude on the first page of my phone.

fan said...

Anna - it was the same for me, a friend reminded me to look into this and I really enjoy it, so glad I can pass it on
Lesley - good stuff, looking forward to see the updates. You know the map stuff is something you think about first, but then later you think a well, what the hell do I need map for it is all there in front of my eyes. As I discovered there is actually a map integrated with items directly and this is cool. Maybe more for the web platform a map is interesting, as the use is not out there in the field.

mcknut said...

@fan - not at all, like I said we're well aware of the issues :-)