Need to find a bathroom, fast? Use your cell phone.
On U.S. roadways, it can warn motorists that they’re entering an area frequented by police eager to catch speeders.
In major metropolitan areas, it can direct lost pedestrians to the nearest subway station.
At the park, it can alert players who's “It” in a 21st-century version of tag.
Who knew cell phones had such possibilities? As the technology for these once-humble devices advances, new applications are being developed to integrate the phones into the demands of daily life. Desperate to find a clean bathroom? The click of a few buttons can now lead you to relief.
These new applications are finalists in this year’s Navteq Global Challenge, an annual contest. In the Global Challenge, now in its fifth year, software developers compete to create applications that use the Internet and Global Positioning Satellite capabilities that many cell phones now have. The final round of judging takes place between March 31 and April 2 in Las Vegas.
Many of these applications have not yet gained wide usage, and several of them depend on user-input to succeed. The Trapster alert program (trapster.com), for instance, relies on real-time reports about speed traps that motorists can register from their phones.
“Everybody, from soccer moms to street racers to truck drivers, everybody wants to get alerted when there's a speed trap,” said Trapster’s developer, Pete Tenereillo of San Diego.
When drivers see a speed trap, they have a variety of ways to register its location. The more advanced the phone, the easier it is to submit a report. Drivers with a Nokia smartphone, for example, simply press the pound key followed by the 1 button on their phone, which sends a digital signal marking the spot. BlackBerry users have to navigate through the device’s menu to tag the area, and those with older phones can dial into a computer and report the location.
These alerts remain active for an hour. (After that, it is presumed the police car has moved to another location.) When motorists with advanced phones drive through the speed trap area, the message “Live police! Live police!” will shout from their phones, Tenereillo said. Older phones receive a text message when a new speed trap in the area is reported.
Not all cell phone applications rely on user-generated data. Developers at San Francisco-based Urban Mapping Inc. took advantage of the maps the company makes for MapQuest and the search engines Google and Yahoo when creating its public transit map application, said Ian White, the company's chief executive.
With the application, users can find the nearest transit-system stop and get directions to it from their location. So far, developers have programmed the data with maps of 60 mass-transit systems in the United States and have plans to expand coverage into Europe. White does not expect the application to be available for cell phone users until April at the earliest.
People engaged in a search more urgent than locating the nearest bus stop might be interested in the site developed by Yojo Mobile. MizPee (mizpee.com) tracks the locations of restrooms in 20 U.S. cities. The company just launched a sister service covering six major European cities (youreapeein.com). Users can add locations and rate their cleanliness on a scale of 1-5 rolls with 5 being a “royal flush” and 1 being a “prison toilet.”
“Cleanliness, I don’t think, is something you can find just by asking someone on the street,” said Peter Olfe, president of Yojo, which is based in San Francisco. “It's one of those services that screams for a mobile.”
So, apparently, is the game of tag. New York developer Steve Bull, chief executive of Cutlass Inc., made all players “it” in an application called Game Park. Participants use their phones to track a dot on the map on their screen, which represents the person they’re supposed to find. Players earn points by coming within 50 feet of their target, which counts as a virtual tag. They must also simultaneously avoid being tagged.
“The game is a little dangerous-sounding because you’re both predator and prey,” said Bull. “It’s not one of those wimpy screen-based games.”
When the Global Challenge competition is completed, the tag and transit map programs will be available for download from where.com, a site that charges a $2.99 flat fee for access to a number of cell-phone programs. The developers said they like the site because it makes the applications available for multiple cell phones.
Some Global Challenge contenders like Trapster and Mizpee are already available. Both applications are free.
“Charging for this service would kill it,” said Trapster's Tenereillo. “All of that data was collected by people contributing it for free.”
Tenereillo has also been careful to protect the identities of Trapster’s users, especially since many of them, presumably, are scofflaws. Not only does he keep users’ identities a secret, but he also said his computers don’t record the location of motorists as they register new speed traps, he said.
“That would be the best possible way to scare off every user I could possibly get,” Tenereillo said.
Ultimately, Tenereillo would like the number of Trapster users to reach such “a critical mass” that motorists would know about all the speed traps in their area, which in turn would diminish the need for the traps.
“Most of these cops would really like people to just slow down,” Tenereillo said.
Even if drivers don’t live up to Tenereillo’s expectations, these applications can provide cell phone users with quick, easy access to local knowledge.
“When you're looking for a toilet,” said MizPee's Olfe, “proximity is of absolute importance.”