By PETER GRIFFIN
You're gazing up at Auckland's Sky Tower, wondering just how tall it really is. If wireless technology company Geovector has its way, you'll simply point your mobile phone or handheld computer at Auckland's best-known landmark and use GPS (global positioning system) to find out its location and anything else you want to know - from how much a Sky Jump bungy costs to what's on the menu at the tower's revolving restaurant.
That's the theory behind "pointing" technology the San Francisco-based company is developing in research labs in Auckland and Christchurch.
Financially backed by a string of high-profile Silicon Valley executives and headed by John Ellenby, one of the architects of the Tablet PC concept, Geovector is using the "point and click" idea behind the computer mouse to give roving consumers detailed information about their surroundings.
Geovector's New Zealand director Arron Judson said the key to the company's success was persuading handheld manufacturers such as Hewlett Packard and Toshiba, and the full range of mobile handsets makers, to build the GPS "heading sensors" into their devices.
Those sensors can be made at minimal cost - less than $5 each, says Judson.
"It's simple for them, just a matter of adding a heading sensor into their plastic sleeves or straight into the devices," he said.
The company has a large collection of patents covering the act of pointing at an object to retrieve information wirelessly.
Eventually shoppers could point their device at the nearest McDonalds store to find out the day's specials or aim at a hotel to check out the room rates.
Judson says information relating to each building will be stored in "geo-located" databases which may be maintained by network operators such as Vodafone or Telecom. Third party content providers will fill the databases with information.
"Someone will have to own the collective infrastructure and be responsible for constantly updating it. We're envisaging that will be traditional information holders, the likes of Yellow Pages, the Automobile Association or the Hotel Association."
The company is in discussions with aerial mapping company Terralink to gain access to its database of location-based information.
But Geovector is also seeing huge potential for its technology in the gaming industry. It has already developed a pointing version of classic role-player Doom, where a user armed with a handheld computer physically moves around to navigate through the game being played out on the computer screen.
Another application dubbed "Buddyfinder" will use GPS, augmented by cellular coverage to allow friends to track each others' location and message each other.
A marine application will use GPS and digital goggles to allow navigators to glean information about landforms in the distance.
As Geovector works on commercialising its technology it is forging alliances with the hardware and software vendors that will ultimately bring it to the mass market. The pointing software is based on Microsoft's Pocket PC platform, a cut-down version of Windows for handhelds. Rival format Palm is not currently being supported.
"It needs Microsoft to give us that reassurance that we're dealing with a solution that will work on current infrastructure," said Judson.
Geovector will generate revenue by licensing software, as well as such applications as virtual tour guides - one of which has already been created for the Auckland region.
* This is the first in an occasional series on some of New Zealand's most innovative people and businesses.
By PETER GRIFFIN