Location tracking -- for people, products, places -- is fast coming into
its own.  It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your _______ is?

By Andrew Caffrey, Globe Staff  |  October 10, 2005

In one operating room at Massachusetts General Hospital, doctors and
nurses wear radio tags that register their comings and goings on a 42-inch
television screen so other members of the medical team know who is
attending the surgery at any given moment.

At an old-soldiers home in King, Wis., elderly residents who are at risk
of wandering off carry a small wireless beacon that signals their location
within a residential facility, and triggers an audio alert over the public
address system when one gets close to a potentially risky area, such as a

At the Illinois Institute of Technology, prospective students could take a
self-guided tour using a tablet PC that spits out information on
activities happening near where they are standing on the Chicago campus or
gives them architectural highlights of the Mies van der Rohe building as
they walk by.

Such tracking technologies, including new applications for Global
Positioning Systems, are coming to a campus, cafe, or care center near

After years of false starts and underwhelming results, systems for
locating people, places, and objects are finally finding themselves. Once
the province of the fanciful imagination of Q from the James Bond series,
location technologies are wending their way into ordinary business
practices and extraordinary human applications, from monitoring the
elderly to connecting a cardiac patient admitted to the emergency room
with the nearest surgeon.

The advances are being aided by upgrades in hand-held and other mobile
devices, which can now process prodigious amounts of data generated by
navigation and related technologies. Communications networks are more
robust and can provide more saturated coverage, and the costs of chip sets
for GPS and other tracking technologies have fallen steeply.

Indeed, consumers are now so accepting of mobile devices such as
cellphones that industry analysts predict they won't be reluctant to adopt
this next wave of newfangled technologies.

''Everyone in the family now has a cellphone," said David H. Williams,
whose firm, E911-LBS Consulting of Wilton, Conn., specializes in wireless
technology. ''That change in consumer sentiment has made the time right to
go the next level."

Not everyone is pleased about the technology's potential, however. Privacy
advocates warn that tracking technologies can invite unwarranted snooping
or unwanted spamming. Yet businesses are moving ahead with myriad uses,
often in cases for which there is a real safety need to know where someone
or something is.

LoJack Corp. of Westwood is exploring whether to market a version of its
highly successful system that locates stolen vehicles to track at-risk
people, such as Alzheimer's patients. Because Alzheimer's patients
sometimes tear off valuables or accessories such as cellphones or watches
when they wander, the tracking device would have to be secured to the
person, said William Duvall, LoJack's chief technology officer. ''It would
have to be a kind of bracelet, something not easy to get off," he said.

LoJack has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to
use the same public safety radio frequency they use to track stolen
vehicles to track people, hazardous materials shipments, or other

Another increasingly popular form of tracking is radio frequency
identification, or RFID, a technology that use radio waves to transmit
information that's stored on a silicon chip over tiny antennas, together
called a ''tag," to a machine that can read it and process that data to a
computer. Officials at several Boston hospitals, including MGH and Beth
Israel Deaconess Medical Center, are researching using RFID tags on
patients, to track them through one station of care to another, and on
doctors, to locate a specialist in an hurry.

''We could make stuff happen based on knowing when a patient is moving
from one location to another," said Dr. John Halamka, chief information
officer at Beth Israel Deaconess. ''As they leave the emergency room, you
could kick off a whole number of processes -- discharge papers or alerting
a doctor when a patient has physically arrived in a room."

Beth Israel Deaconess is already using RFID tags to find critical devices
within its sprawling emergency department. The hospital's wireless network
detects the location of a tagged medical device and relays that
information to a server, where it is mapped and displayed as an icon on a
computerized floor plan.

The hospital is also studying another application: tagging doctors with
RFID devices that can be read by medical computers. For example, computers
in an operating room could detect an anesthesiologist entering the
operating room and switch applications to display vital signs relevant for
this particular specialist. The application would go beyond Mass.
General's system, which simply displays the name of who is in the room. At
Beth Israel, the doctor's detected presence would automatically initiate
such things as a display of vital signs.

''The system is taking an intelligent guess, based on the proximity of the
doctor, that it is most relevant to display this or that piece of
information," said Richard Barnwell, chief technology officer for PanGo
Networks Inc., of Framingham, which provides software Beth Israel uses to
track equipment.

Meanwhile, the students who designed the computerized self-guided tour of
the Illinois Institute of Technology have moved on from tablet PCs to a
new vehicle: a Segway scooter. Students hope to have a working model of a
Segway by December that will provide a verbal rundown of the sights and
attractions, based on where the touring student is motoring at the moment,
said Santhosh Meleppuram, a computer and electrical engineering major who
currently heads the project. The system will use both GPS, to determine
coordinates outside on the campus grounds, and a WiFi network for indoor
location where GPS doesn't work as well.

The practical application for such technology needs to be simple to be
effective, said Tuomo Rutanen, vice president of business development for
Ekahau Inc., a Saratoga, Calif., firm that provides the software for both
the Illinois and Wisconsin veterans' home tracking systems.

''The whole end-user experience has to be very transparent and very easy,"
he said.

It also has to be affordable, or location services will be just another
wayward technology.

David H. Williams, the wireless consultant, said consumers can expect
location services to be built into cellphones or PDAs or Internet service,
and to pay extra monthly fees if they want to activate the system.

''You're not going to wind up buying the equipment," Williams said.
''Instead it's going to be the longer-term usage and ongoing service fees"
that will make it profitable for providers and affordable to customers.

Andrew Caffrey can be reached at [EMAIL PROTECTED]

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