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A High-Tech Wonder That Helps You Wander

By MIKI TANIKAWA

Getting around in Japan's cramped cities can be a pain for locals and visitors alike. Street maps and road signs serve only as partial guides to the nation's narrow, winding and often confusing city streets. But in a country where the in-car navigation system is widespread, it was only a matter of time before somebody came up with a nifty solution for pedestrians: a portable navigation system with a built-in mapping software that guides sidewalk cruisers every step of the way. Talk about finding yourself!

Techno-trendy Japanese are using personal GPS receivers that pick up the "global positioning system" of 27 satellites that orbit the planet. Seiko Epson entered Japan's handheld GPS market last month, launching its Locatio, billed as the world's first personal digital assistant to feature a real-time navigation capability. The Locatio uses the same technology as automotive navigation units, receiving signals from GPS satellites to determine its precise location. Masaaki Hayashi, a marketing executive at Seiko Epson, says that with 1.5 million units of car navigation systems sold annually in Japan, "We thought there could be one designed for walking individuals."

The idea is not new; JATCO Corp., a Fuji-based auto parts manufacturer, designed mobile navigation terminals for the Japan Travel Bureau in November. The gizmo, dubbed Digital Bird, was such a hit with tourists on JTB tours that a few were sold to the public last month on a trial basis. While JATCO's device is not readily available, the Locatio is. What's more, Seiko Epson's handheld units take the mapping technology a step further by incorporating a telephone, digital camera and an Internet browser into each "navi-phone."

So how does the new Locatio work? Simply pop up the antenna on the 290 g receiver and dial into i-Point, Seiko Epson's domestic network in Japan. The system takes about 40 seconds to call up a detailed map marking your location on its liquid crystal display (the company claims it is accurate within 10 m). To find a particular spot on the map, enter the address you want to reach. As you head toward your goal, a tiny cross indicating your current position moves with you, or you can link the two points by making a line on the screen with a stylus. You can also download information from a list of restaurants, hotels and tourist spots on the network's "point of interest" feature, a handy data base that will be continually expanded.

Besides making phone calls, users can also send e-mail messages or use the digital camera option to shoot and send out instant e-postcards. The Locatio's Web access also means you get more than just a map. For those overwhelmed by the sprawling cobweb of Tokyo subways, the Locatio will not only guide you to a train station, it will show you where to get on, where to change trains and even how long your trip should take; just indicate your current and desired destination points. You can also get a weather forecast, or make dinner plans by searching for eateries within, say, a 100 m radius.

Another spin on navigation equipment that evolved from automotive to pedestrian use are portable car GPS tools like the Deru Navi, produced by Kyushu Matsushita Electric. As with similar machines made by Sony and Sanyo, the unit can be removed from the user's car and taken into a hotel room, for instance, where the traveler can leisurely plot the next day's driving route.

The coolest of the new tracking devices is Casio's Pro Tek Satellite Navi, the world's first navigation watch. Weighing in at 137 g, this savvy "GPS-Shock" is lighter and smaller than handheld GPS units. It's able to receive signals from as many as three satellites simultaneously, displaying the wearer's latitude and longitude (but no maps). The wearable sherpa is designed for use by hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts and can store up to 200 locations in its memory. Casio aims to create a version of the plugged-in timepiece with urban maps to guide city slickers. And if you think the Pro Tek sounds cool, the company also plans to add GPS capability to its popular Cassiopea handheld computer. A recently unveiled prototype reveals a sophisticated tracking system: when a target locale is entered, the screen instantly creates a map showing the quickest route between the user and the destination.

The range of applications and demand for GPS systems in Japan has made the technology more accessible, although it's still somewhat pricey: the Locatio sells for $800, while Casio's Pro Tek watch costs about $400 and its revved up Cassiopeia will retail for around $1,700. But prices could fall as the market grows more competitive. Casio plans to launch its self-tracking timepiece as the Pathfinder watch in the U.S. in September (no other Asian launches are confirmed as yet), while Seiko is not considering overseas sales for the Locatio until its i-Point network is expanded beyond Japan.

The overwhelming demand for user-based navigation aids has already spurred other consumer tech firms like Sharp to get into the personal GPS game, while NTT DoCoMo, the nation's largest cellular network, is considering making GPS capability a standard feature on its cellular phones. The proliferation of these personal navigators means visitors and locals can get lost--to their heart's content.





Daily

July 26, 1999

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Techno-trendy Japanese are using personal GPS receivers that pick up the "global positioning system" of 27 satellites that orbit the planet


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