GPS helps your PDA know where you are

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By Mike Langberg

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Mercury News

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I'm being beckoned into the courtyard of Project Artaud, a co- operative residence and work space for artists in San Francisco's Mission District.

``Come in, come in, beyond the metal gate, and introduce yourself,'' says a friendly female voice through headphones connected to a Hewlett-Packard rx3715 personal digital assistant slung on a black sash around my shoulder. The PDA is connected to a small global positioning system receiver, so this electronic companion knows I'm standing exactly in front of the gate on Alabama Street between 17th and Mariposa streets.

The invitation was part of a fascinating fusion of art and technology called ``Scape the Hood,'' which I spent an hour experiencing Monday afternoon.

The technology part comes from HP's research lab in Bristol, England, which has spent three years developing a framework for what it calls ``mediascapes.''

Mediascapes are short audio vignettes, usually 30 seconds to three minutes long, that are stored in a PDA. The PDA knows its location by tapping signals from positioning system satellites, and plays the vignettes whenever the user reaches a designated position.

The vignettes can be anything: historical anecdotes, interviews with people who live in the area or just random music.

Scape the Hood, the first mediascape staged in the United States, is a collaboration between HP, broadcaster KQED and Mission District community artists.

From Friday through Monday, in conjunction with the annual Digital Storytelling Festival at KQED's Mission District building, about 170 people donned one of 20 sashes and walked through the three-block mediascape.

At Project Artaud, as I circled the outside of the former can factory, I heard artists talk about how the co-op started. I learned the bricks on the sidewalk came from the former factory's furnace.

In the next block, I heard a burbling stream, the hooting of an owl and the chirp of crickets -- along with the voice of another woman telling me about the marshes and meadows that covered the Mission District when its only residents were Ohlone Indians.

At the Mission Village Market, which runs a community flea market every Saturday morning, I listened to the weekly drum circle and heard a man talk about finding a precious antique beer stein in one of the stalls.

For the hour I was listening to Scape the Hood, I felt I was living in two worlds at once. I saw and heard the street scene around me, but also got a sensation of physically moving through another scene created by the sound clips cascading one after another through the headphones.

At one point, I heard the jingle of ice cream bells and couldn't tell -- until I turned my head around -- that a real push-cart ice cream vendor was coming down the block.

I probably listened to about half the 70 vignettes created for Scape the Hood; I would have had to circle around a second time to hear them all.

HP's Bristol lab is giving away the software to create mediascapes and envisions a wide range of applications.

By connecting a heart monitor, for example, a PDA or cell phone with GPS could recommend the best route for an optimum workout for a runner or cyclist. Mediascapes could also create a whole new category of mobile games.

``We've allowed people who aren't computer experts or technologists to create things that are meaningful to them,'' said Jo Reid, who heads the Bristol program and came to San Francisco for the U.S. debut.

The biggest mediascape to date ran for three weeks in April 2004 at the historic Queen's Square in Bristol. Called ``Riot 1831,'' the collection of 140 vignettes re-created a political protest for voting rights that turned deadly when saber-wielding dragoons slaughtered several hundred Bristol residents.

Reid says about 700 people walked in and around Queens Square to experience the audio re-creation of the three-day confrontation.

Abbe Don, who has the intriguing title of Senior User Experience Designer at HP's main research lab in Palo Alto, pulled together all the participants for Scape the Hood.

Don calls Riot 1831 ``the first ever GPS-enabled radio play.''

The software created by HP could ultimately work on any mobile electronic device with GPS, with the vignettes downloaded in advance or streamed through a wireless data network.

Cell phone providers are hard at work introducing what they call location-based services, or LBS. There's a dark side to LBS, with cell phones becoming tracking devices that could tell anyone from your parents to your spouse to your boss where you are. LBS could also be used to send unwanted advertising, such as ringing your phone to offer a coupon when you're walking or driving by a store.

Scape the Hood is a welcome reminder that location tracking can also be used to create new ways for artists to express themselves, and for all of us to learn about the world in which we live.

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