GPS Goes Mainsteam The 30-year-old Global Positioning System is finally a hot consumer item, with applications for in-car navigation systems and cell phones. The popular technology is changing how people understand geography.
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GPS Goes Mainsteam

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GPS Goes Mainsteam

GPS Goes Mainsteam

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

As of yesterday morning, millions of people have no excuse for getting completely lost. They got GPS navigation devices for Christmas. That was one of this year's hottest gifts.

2007 is the year when global positioning has finally gone mainstream it is everywhere. It's in cars, it's in cell phones, it's strapped under the arms of joggers, and it's even changing how people understand geography for better or maybe for worse.

NPR's Dan Charles explains.

DAN CHARLES: At the Best Buy store on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., the GPS devices are flying off the shelves.

Mr. KYLE BUTLER MIRES(ph) (Employee, Best Buy Store): Everybody's buying. Everybody.

CHARLES: That's Kyle Butler Mires. He sells these products. And Emily Teeter(ph) wants to buy one.

Ms. EMILY TEETER (Resident, Washington): My brother has one as well. We just got my dad one so it just seems to be the famous Christmas.

CHARLES: The new device that everybody's got to have.

Ms. PETER: I know. It is, it is. It's, like, the iPod last year, right?

CHARLES: The people who are lining up to get their hands on satellite navigation do not seem to be gadget groupies.

Beverly Galeressi(ph), for instance.

Ms. BEVERLY GALERESSI (Resident, Washington): I am not a gizmo gal. Sorry. No.

CHARLES: But this for you, you figure it's useful.

Ms. GALERESSI: Absolutely. It's been useful in rental cars.

CHARLES: According to a spokesman from the company Avis, 10 percent of all rental cars now leave the lot with the GPS device on board, twice as many as a year ago.

Unidentified Woman #1: Continue 0.4 miles, then turn right on Art(ph) street.

CHARLES: As asking directions gives way to listening to robots, some scientists are wondering whether GPS will change the way people see or understand the world around them.

Holly Taylor, a psychologist at Tufts University, says if you love maps already, GPS opens up new ways to explore. You can do things like use the device to record the path you took while biking or hiking and you can lay that path out on a map or a computer program like Google Earth.

Professor HOLLY TAYLOR (Psychology, Tufts University): And get that insight of - oh, I was really close to, you know, this vista while I was hiking. Next time I go on that same hike, I'm going to know I can take off on this smaller trail for another 200 yards and then get this beautiful view.

CHARLES: People who have trouble with directions, on the other hand, seem to use GPS as a technological crutch. It's a way to avoid learning.

Prof. TAYLOR: Now, they don't have to figure out how to get around because they can just program and the addresses into their GPS.

CHARLES: But even for the directionally challenged, GPS can reveal hidden features of the landscape. At least, that's what Jim Carrier believes. He founded a small company called IntelliTours.

Mr. JIM CARRIER (Founder, IntelliTours): I like to drive and listen to things. I think that's one of the American hobbies, and it occurred to me a long time ago that as I drive along, I'd like to know what I'm seeing as I pass.

CHARLES: IntelliTours is creating a location-activated soundtrack for portions of the Interstate Highway System. You'd load it into your GPS navigation device, and then, let's say you're driving south through Virginia on I-95, just as you reach the outskirts of Richmond, your GPS device will come alive.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: On to Richmond was the union battle cry early in the civil war.

CHARLES: It's a little bit like the audio tours you can rent in museums except that this museum is as big as the country and you never have to leave.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Six days later, at nearby Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered his army of Northern Virginia.

Mr. CARRIER: And hopefully, people will be drawn into the story and as they drive by Richmond at 80 miles an hour, they will come away with a richer sense of the history there.

CHARLES: This kind of thing is likely to become a lot more common. GPS devices will become your guide to the world, to restaurants, hospitals and real estate listings. Actually though, they can only guide you to things that are stored in their digital map of the world. And, Carrier says, he worries a little bit about how that map will be created. Businesses may buy their right to a listing on the map, but lots of places could remain invisible.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

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