Location tracking -- for people, products, places -- is fast coming into its own
It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your _______ is?
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 stairwell.
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 you.
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 ''cargo."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.