Maps are power. Those who draw them control the public’s access to the world at a fundamental level—for example, in the 1500s, maps of the New World were worth their weight in gold. These days, we rely on the Global Positioning System, developed by the Department of Defense during the Cold War. Though it’s publicly accesible, GPS is still a closed system, meaning the government can shut it down or edit it as they see fit.
But as people push for more transparency in government, is it time to think about a more transparent navigation system? Philipp Ronnenberg, an interaction design student at the Royal College of Art, thinks so. At the RCA’s biannual Work in Progress show this month, Ronnenberg introduced his fledgling Open Positioning System, an alternative to GPS. “At the moment, we are bound to the Americans’ military GPS and network companies,” he says. “The technology is closed at the moment and can be curated or shut down at any time.” The OPS, on the other hand, seeks to establish a reliable positioning system that’s totally independent of the government, corporations, and even satellites.
To understand how OPS is different, it helps to know a bit about how GPS works (if you do, forgive my ignorance). When you open Google Maps, it triangulates your location by measuring how long it took several nearby satellites to send a signal to the receiver—a principle called trilateration that you probably learned in geometry. Ronnenberg has come up with a radical alternative to using signals from satellites. Instead of measuring how long it takes a signal to move from Lower Earth Orbit to your phone, OPS measures nearby seismic frequencies. Not the kind caused by earthquakes—these are smaller, predictable, man-made disturbances emitted by power plants and turbines. But they’re still measurable, which means that anyone carrying a sensor can pick up frequencies and determine their location.
According to Ronnenberg, he’s never heard of anyone using a seismic sensor in this way. “I came to this idea because I was researching animal communication,” he told me over email. “Elephants and some spiders can communicate through the ground by producing seismic activity which is then transmitted and received.” Like those arthropods, Ronnenberg’s system can pick up seismic frequencies from any surface in contact with the ground—walls, tables, or the floorboards. The setup is not without flaws: the user, obviously, needs to be nearby a machine or power plant emitting a noise, and readings can get muddled by city noise. And similarly to GPS, the sensor needs at least three readings to produce a reliable location. Taking all of that in stride, it’s still a fairly remarkable idea that could, presumably, be honed to perfection.
The OPS will rely on a whole lot of beta testers to get off the ground. On openps.info, Ronnenberg is operating a forum as well as a quick-start set of instructions that (to my n00b eyes) seem to require a bit of engineering know-how. But the pieces themselves—a low-cost sensor made by Piezo and an Arduino board—would probably be tackle-able to anyone willing to watch a few YouTube instruction videos.
Keep in mind that the OPS is a student project, presented at the midpoint of the semester, so it’s more of a proof of concept than a fully fleshed-out platform. For example, the seismic solution takes care of only half of the system: locating you. The maps themselves are another issue. But Ronnenberg hopes that with enough time and participants, OPS can generate reliable maps that will make the system truly independent. Check out the website here.