(CNN) -- Very soon, the most common phrase transiting through mobile phone networks will no longer be "Where are you?" but "I see you."
While satellite navigation via Global Positioning System (GPS) have been helping earthbound humans to visualize and plot everything from U.S. military movements to lost hikers since the 1970s, GPS and other mobile location-based services (LBS) have only recently begun to infiltrate our personal handsets.
"Many phone companies offer a cell-based location system," says Lawrence Cheung, principal consultant of the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC).
"The system works by locating the strongest nearby cell signals that are visible by the device's antenna, which can determine its position with an accuracy of around 200 meters. Hong Kong has about 1,500 cell towers."
Coordinating through the concrete jungle
Location technologies such as Cell-ID and WiFi are especially precious in dense urban areas like Hong Kong's Nathan Road -- where high-rise buildings often block satellites' highly precise "Sky Line of Sight," but where WiFi and cell towers are ubiquitous.
A few mobile-phone makers, including Samsung and Nokia in Asia, as well as Garmin in Europe and Apple's new 3G iPhone, already feature Assisted GPS, which combines several location-based technologies to offer faster, more flexible services such as dynamic maps and photo geo-tagging.
On the entertainment side, the agency Area/code has devised a number of quirky mobile location-based games involving GPS telemetry, Wi-Fi positioning, camera phones, semacodes, multi-players, and even live sharks with GPS units attached to their fins.
Mobile sweepstakes startup Limbo has set a precedent for advertising on mobile phones, so it won't be long before GPS is added to the equation, targeting the ads to each potential customer's specific location.
Meanwhile a handful of startups such as Telenav, WaveMarket and Brightkite have attempted to conquer the mobile market with their own LBS, focusing on dynamic, talking GPS navigation and extending their services to locating family, friends and resources.
Sat-nav meets soc-net
Among these companies offering to transform our mobile device into a "social compass," Loopt is one of the most established, with reportedly hundreds of thousands of registered users.
Part of Loopt's success is due to its wide support for 65 different handsets and its partnership with six mobile-phone carriers, as well as its availability as an add-on in Facebook -- not to mention a deal with CBS to launch location-based advertising.
CEO and co-founder Sam Altman says he came up with the idea for Loopt when he walked out of class one day at Stanford University and realized everyone was calling or texting their friends to see where they were.
Today, Altman observes, "The number of friends really varies by user. Some only share with their five closest friends, while others are comfortable with a larger group. I have over 45 Loopt friends and also share my Loopt location information on other services like Facebook."
If having that many "friends" knowing exactly where you are at any given moment may sound scary to some, Loopt assures its constituency that it offers "the most advanced privacy settings ever built for a location service."
When asked to elaborate, Altman insists, "Loopt works with leading mobile, social networking, and online privacy and security organizations such as the Center for Democracy & Technology, Family Online Safety Institute and the Internet Safety Task Force among others. Loopt is also TRUSTe certified."
As to the iPhone, for which Loopt support is imminent, Altman beams: "The iPhone SDK tool is amazing. In two months, we were able to make the best version of Loopt we've ever created. It's taken us nearly a year to create other versions of our software."
In addition to Loopt, which promises to be a free download from Apple's opening-soon App Store, Polar Bear has created an application to let us shoot video with the 3G iPhone, making geo-tagging all the more relevant.
Cool things you can do with GPS
HKPC's Cheung identifies five distinct layers of GPS application: "Layer 1 is location -- Where am I? Layer 2 is the road map -- How do I get there? Layer 3 is value-added services such as tourist attractions, restaurants or other localized resources and information. Layer 4 is advertising. Layer 5 is dynamic navigation based on current conditions, such as weather, traffic or news."
In the case of this year's Beijing Olympics, GPS will be used to generate graphics that show where each boat is in relation to its competitors, as well as monitor the progress of individual boats in rowing and canoeing. Likewise, it will allow spectators to see exactly how far marathon frontrunners have to go to the finish line.
In Japan, Honda recently launched a premium members-only service that automatically downloads local crime figures to drivers' GPS units, in order to provide them with an educated guess on whether or not it's a good idea to park in that spot.
In a more eco-friendly initiative, Australia's Lismore Council will launch in July the country's fourth "natural burial site," featuring biodegradable coffins that can be buried deep in the outback at a spot personally chosen by family members and precisely located by its GPS coordinates.
And mobile social networking isn't just for humans. ZebraNet equips zebras with spiffy white GPS-enabled collars that sample their location every eight minutes and allow peer-to-peer data swapping between friends.
Of course, the information gathered is then sent back to a human research team led by Princeton University's Daniel Rubenstein, who is more interested in studying the endangered Grevy's zebras' grazing habits than what they think of each other's neckwear.
GPS has even inspired hypothetical amateur "position art," as megalomanically marketed by "Stavros and his Nokia N82," and only slightly more realistically evoked by Swedish design student Erik Nordenankar, who would have dispatched via DHL a GPS unit on a 110,664-km, 55-day journey spanning six continents and 62 countries, in order to create "the world's biggest drawing" in the form of a self-portrait.
But even if the two above-mentioned artworks belong to the realm of fiction, our progressing level of civilian GPS accessibility suggests that it may not be long before fantasy meets feasibility.
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