Friday, January 09, 2009


What will they come up with next?

I’m always interested in what innovations technology spawns. The base technology is often wonderful enough, but what people think of doing with it is what’s really fascinating. And as someone who’s in the business of trying to find innovative ways to use technology, I especially appreciate it.

I worked in what was then IBM’s Federal Systems Division when we had a part of the contract to develop the Global Positioning System (I didn’t work on the system myself, but many of my colleagues did). Conceived (and funded) for the military, the GPS system was opened up for civilian use — first with some restrictions (encryption keys were needed to get full resolution out of the system, so civilians couldn’t establish location as accurately as the military could), and then, in 2000, with full resolution.

Since then, of course, everyone knows about GPS devices, even if they don’t fully appreciate how the technology works, and just how cool it is. Many of us have GPS navigation systems in our cars, or we have handheld versions — I have one in my BlackBerry. And what would we do without them? We might not even be able to find the  railroad  tracks.

Well... soon, we won’t imagine how we ever played golf without one. Yes, Garmin, one of the top three GPS makers (the others are TomTom and Magellan), has come out with a GPS device just for golfers.

This year, one new Garmin device in particular caught our eye: the Approach G5. This waterproof, handheld GPS device uses the satellite-based GPS network, first developed by the military, for a cause vital to homeland defense: It calculates a golfer’s distance to the center of the green or other features of the golf course, so he can select the proper club.

The device is similar to the binocular-like rangefinders popular with some golfers today. But those gadgets use lasers to approximate the distance from the golfer to the target. With the Approach G5, Garmin touts the precision of the GPS network and its touch screen, which lets duffers specify with a few taps on the screen the exact distance to where they want to place the ball.

A cool use of technology. Can it be extended to other uses? This one’s clearly a specialized device: it will come pre-loaded with the layouts of “about half the golf courses in the United States”. But does this provide the germ of an idea that someone else will take to other domains?

It’s expensive, too: $500. But, as a Garmin salesman points out, “People pay $200 to $300 for a club and $200 for green fees in this sport.” Might the Approach G5 be worth, say, two new high-end golf clubs? I don’t golf, so I don’t know how helpful this would be.

I do know that it would be cool, in general, to have a handheld device that would show me an aerial view of where I am, let me touch other points, and immediately show me the path and distance to them. Put Google Maps together with a GPS device, and I’d like that. Maybe not $500 worth, though....

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