Elizabeth Woyke, 06.25.10, 6:50 PM ET
For developers who work with location data, the iPhone 4’s most exciting feature is one of its most hidden: the gyroscope.
The feature, which precisely measures orientation, will make location-based applications more interactive and accurate, say developers. Though gyroscopes are commonly found in remote-controlled flying objects, such as model airplanes, they have not been built into cellphones until now. A June 24 report from researcher iSuppli called the use of gyroscope-based control one of the iPhone 4’s « major innovations. »
In his early June introduction to the new iPhone, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs said the three-axis gyroscope had been tied to the handset’s accelerometer and compass to provide six-axis motion sensing that could detect the device’s pitch, roll and yaw. « These phones are getting more and more intelligent about the world around them, » he added.
In his keynote Jobs mentioned games as an area that would benefit from the gyroscope. But people who make navigation applications say they are also excited about the new feature. « You will see maps go from two dimensions to things you can interact with, » says Christian Petersen, the vice president of CloudMade, a start-up that provides geographic-related tools to developers.
According to Petersen, that means someone using a mapping service would be able to view a store in 3-D as well as see basic details about it, such as name and location. Users could click on stores they wanted to stop by and the app would map out the most efficient route. It could also automatically sense when a store had been visited and remove it from the list.
« This is about taking the map experience to the next level with your phone tracking where you are and knowing where you want to go, » says Petersen. Currently, most mapping apps can do little more than zoom in where a user is clicking or pointing. The reason: The maps they use are simply pictures. Rendering information-rich vector maps requires more processing power, which can be difficult to provide on phones.
Developers also believe the gyroscope will improve the accuracy of their apps. Andy Gstoll, the chief executive of Mobilizy in Austria, says the gyroscope should enhance his company’s mobile navigation system, Wikitude Drive, by tracking changes of direction more meticulously than alternate methods, such as GPS, compass or curve radius calculations. Because the gyroscope doesn’t rely on a network connection, it will also help apps determine users’ locations in places like tunnels, which typically cut off GPS data, says Gstoll. Petersen says Skobbler, a free navigation app based on CloudMade tools, will be updated to include gyroscope data.
These gains may be most evident in augmented reality apps, which use phone compasses to superimpose computer-generated images onto a view of the user’s real-world surroundings. Like regular compasses, these mobile compasses operate best when held flat. People usually grip their phones at an angle, however, particularly if they’re trying to peer at information on the screen. Gyroscopes will work no matter how the phone is held, say developers.
Gstoll says the gyroscope will make Mobilizy’s augmented reality app, Wikitude World Browser, more useful because it can interact with 3-D objects more precisely than other positioning sensors. Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, cofounder of augmented reality browser Layar, says the new sensor will make the app « even more immersive. »
The next step may be linking augmented reality to games. Game developer Ubisoft recently incorporated Layar into a promotion for its « Splinter Cell » videogame, for instance. The campaign asked players to complete several tasks in person in exchange for a discount on the game. Adding a gyroscope to Layar would make these spin-off games more realistic by enabling participants to fight by shaking and waving their phones, similar to the way people play on the Nintendo Wii. « There are lots of possibilities, » says Lens-FitzGerald. « Think sword fights … light saber fights! »
CloudMade also sees new potential for smart, location-based games. The company is working with a dozen game publishers and expects the first collaborations to be released in November or December. One idea is to program local photos or landmarks to appear in a game when users approach a particular city. Such a feature would add « 20% extra value » to a game’s user experience, estimates CloudMade’s Petersen.
There are so many expected gains, in fact, that developers want other handset makers to adopt gyroscopes. « We’d like to support all devices in the same way, » says Layar’s Lens-FitzGerald. Besides the iPhone, Layar also supports phones that run on Google’s Android, Samsung’s Bada and–soon–Nokia’s Symbian platform.
Petersen believes companies like HTC and Samsung will catch up soon. « Some manufacturers probably talked to suppliers and knew Apple would do this, » he says.