I'm lost somewhere within the tangle of narrow streets in Venice, Italy. There are signs high up on the walls of the crowded buildings looming claustrophobically above where the only clear direction is straight up into a bright slit of blue sky. But signs are of no use when you don’t know precisely where you are nor where, exactly, you are going.
I could consult a map if I had one. I left it at the hotel as a way to challenge my inner-compass, which is failing miserably. Venice is an enigma. Built atop millions of ancient wooden pillars driven into the sea, it somehow shouldn’t be here. The so-called “Floating City” should not float at all. It should sink and disappear into the sea. Venice is a metaphor too. You walk its twisting and turning streets, you get lost, you hit dead-ends and have to backtrack and try a different direction.
The draw of Venice, I think, isn’t its churches, or palaces, or the quaint charm of glossy black gondolas ferrying star-struck lovers down its winding waterways. Those things are, of course, beautiful and much has been written about it over the centuries. I think our affinity for Venice is visceral. Our existence is a maze through which we must somehow find our own way without a map. Like Venice itself, we too somehow shouldn’t be here. We should have disappeared into a sea of stars long ago and yet here we are.
I pull out my iPhone and turn on the GPS feature. It is useless. I’m reduced to a pulsing blue dot amidst an amorphous unlabeled grid that doesn’t give me the slightest clue as to where I am. In a moment of Zen, I think, You can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t first know where you are.
In a future that is arriving quickly and quietly, we will always know where we are. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled sensors will be embedded into the fabric of every building and street. Our smartphones will communicate with these sensors. These sensors will communicate with each other. They will know precisely where they are located on earth and so will you, within a couple of meters. In the future, getting lost will not be an unfortunate occurrence—it will be a choice.
All of this may sound a bit Star Treky, but it isn’t. That future is already here and I recently got a glimpse of it at a wireless technology conference in Las Vegas where all the conference rooms spanning multiple floors were saturated with Wi-Fi access points hidden in the ceilings and hockey-puck-size Bluetooth sensors mounted on the walls. As you moved through the sprawling space, an app on your phone continually trained-up with these sensors and showed you, the familiar pulsing blue dot, where you were in a map of the venue, providing directions from one location to another. It was like GPS for driving, but on a micro-level.
Simple enough, but where things started going full-on Star Trek was in demos of this micro-location technology tied into intelligent back-end systems that would be “aware” of your presence and location.
For example, you arrive at a hotel. The moment you walk in the door, you receive an automated notice welcoming you to the hotel and prompting you to authenticate using the fingerprint ID on your smartphone in order to check in and get directions and access to your room. Once you arrive at your room, your door unlocks because it knows you are standing right in front of it. You order food from the hotel restaurant from your smartphone. As you’re headed down to the restaurant you get a notice that your friends have arrived at the hotel and are in the lounge. You go to join them. Meanwhile, the kitchen knows you are not seated in the restaurant but are in the lounge. The system notifies your waiter who brings your order directly to you.
In hospitals, this type of system can be used to check in patients and direct them to where they need to go. It can lead visitors to patients’ rooms. It can automatically alert staff that a patient has been relocated or is currently in the radiology lab. In shopping malls and airports, you’ll be able to easily navigate to where you want to go. You’ll also be able to share your location with your friends so that they can see where you are and easily come meet up with you.
This was all a proof-of-concept, but what happened in Vegas will not stay in Vegas. It’s coming to wherever you are soon. First you’ll see it in select spots, just like back in the old days when a “Wi-Fi hotspot” was something rare but today is everywhere.
As with all technologies, there’s a downside here. Recent research comparing brains of GPS device users versus non-GPS users found that non-GPS users had more grey matter and higher functionality in their hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation. In other words, using our smartphones to navigate the world will atrophy our brains.
In Venice, I turn off my iPhone and turn on my hippocampus to begin finding my way back home.