To the true technophile, personal digital devices are more anatomy than accessory, and the physical world is kind of a nuisance. A simple trip to the mall can be a distraction: You actually have to look up from your screen. Consumer electronics makers seem determined to change that.
Over the past two years, location-awareness technology has been spreading from hand-held digital compasses onto cellphones, laptops, dashboards, and even dog collars, often to comedic effect.
This month, GTX Corp. launched a line of Xplorer Smart GPS shoes that transform sneakers into a wearable LoJack system. Late last year, designer Isaac Daniel introduced a limited-edition GPS shoe, complete with a built-in distress button.
RoamEO for Pets began shipping units this month that transform up to three dogs frolicking in the backyard into moving paws on a radar screen; GPS giant Garmin International Inc. makes a version, too, called the Astro GPS Dog Tracking System.
Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. has built a GPS accessory for its PlayStation Portable, currently available only in Japan, that allows game players to steer their cars into the side of a building, then flip to driving directions and safely steer to a grocery store.
The iRiver W10, an MP3 and video player coming this spring, will use technology developed by a Boston company to help "urban explorers" find nearby restaurants or shops - without having to look away from the music video in their palm.
What exactly is the rationale behind this wide range of products?
"It's not exactly clear to me," said Allan Doyle, project coordinator of the MIT Museum Without Walls project, which is electronically geo-tagging locations on campus to create a new kind of museum tour. "To some extent, it might have gotten to the point where it's cheap to throw it in, so they're experimenting with it instead of having a specific plan."
That suits the GPS makers just fine.
ABI Research found that the number of people in North America who subscribe to GPS-enabled location-based services more than doubled between 2005 and 2006, from 1.6 to 3.9 million. The number of subscribers is projected to rocket to 52 million in 2011.
That means companies working in what used to be a niche market have been enjoying explosive growth. Revenues at TomTom NV, a Concord-based maker of personal navigation products, have increased more than 500-fold since 2001, from $2.5 million to an estimated $1.7 billion last year. Garmin's business has exploded into the mainstream, too, and the company ran its first Super Bowl ad this year. Boston-based start-up Skyhook Wireless brings location awareness to any device with WiFi, and announced a major partnership this month with GPS platform maker SiRF.
If the GPS music player catches on as a concept, navigation, local search, and even location-based advertising on a portable screen could begin to make street signs, landmarks, and billboards seem so last-decade.
As people become more immersed in the virtual landscape, going out and doing things may increasingly begin to feel like an unnecessary excursion into reality.
"The thing is, anything that's mobile is going to want and going to need location, for directions, to find a store, to find an ATM," said Ted Morgan, chief executive of Skyhook Wireless Inc., who even sees the virtual world beginning to overlay reality.
In "urban golf," for instance, players could swing a device like the Nintendo Wii controller and then follow their virtual ball wherever it lands. The game could bring people into restaurants or stores, which could pay to have a "hole" in the middle of their store.
All this high-tech navigation raises basic questions about the changing nature of human experience.
Polaroid makes a combination DVD player and GPS unit for the car, which raises the specter of watching car-chase movies while navigating through traffic.
For those who have trouble remembering their vacations, Sony began selling a GPS unit on a carabiner that syncs with its digital camera, allowing people to postmark their photos with place and time.
This year, Dash Navigation Inc. will begin to ship combination GPS and WiFi units that can help people find their way from one place to another while also allowing them to avoid traffic snarls, find the cheapest gas, and see what movies are playing, without looking out the window.
But if this all sounds too weird, think back for a moment to the first camera phone. It could be that location will follow cameras, MP3s, and Internet access - which once seemed like frivolous add-ons - onto the ubiquitous cellphone.
"Part of what they're trying to do is figure out which convergences make sense," said Adena Schutzberg, executive editor of Directions magazine. "The ultimate converged product is the clock radio. It's a simple thing - it's a clock and it's a radio. It works ... That's really what we're looking" to emulate.