Skyhook and Eye-Fi Hook Up to Automatically Geotag Your Photos

5/12/08Follow @wroush

“Geotagging”—a geeks-only term as recently as a year ago—is moving quickly into the mainstream. And Boston’s Skyhook Wireless is doing as much as any company to make that happen.

Back in February I wrote about a collaboration between Skyhook and Locr, a German photo-sharing community designed especially for pictures that have been geotagged—that is, assigned a latitude and longitude, either automatically at the moment they were taken, or manually, by the photographer. Geotagging, one of the latest features sweeping the world of digital photography, makes it easy to organize and browse pictures through map-based interfaces, which are now a built-in part of Locr, Flickr, and many other photo-sharing sites. Skyhook was working with Locr to put its positioning system—which determines longitude and latitude by scanning for the IDs of nearby Wi-Fi networks—into Locr’s geotagging software for Wi-Fi-capable mobile phones.

That was cool, as far as it went. But while billions of pictures are taken every year with camera phones, the Locr system is no good for regular digital cameras, which take much better pictures than phones, and only a handful of which come with built-in Wi-Fi networking.

Now, for years, I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen that what the consumer digital photography market really needs is a camera with built-in Global Positioning System capability for automatic geotagging. And a few such cameras have appeared, including the Ricoh 500SE, but they’re generally very expensive and are aimed at professionals in the geographic information systems (GIS) business rather than consumers. It turns out that cameras and GPS aren’t a great combination. The signals from GPS satellites are so weak that they don’t reach inside buildings (where many pictures are taken, obviously). And if you’ve ever used a GPS unit, you know that you can’t just turn it on and get your location instantly: it can take several minutes to acquire the signals from three or four satellites needed to fix a position. On top of all that, GPS is a battery hog.

Eye-Fi-Equipped CameraBut Skyhook is again coming to the rescue, partnering this time with a Mountain View, CA, startup called Eye-Fi. Eye-Fi’s SD memory cards for digital cameras contain tiny Wi-Fi radios. By sending your pictures from your camera to your home Windows PC or Mac wirelessly, the Eye-Fi cards save you from having to drag out the usual cradles or USB cables. What’s more, Eye-Fi’s software automatically uploads your pictures to the photo-sharing site of your choice.

At the Where 2.0 conference in Burlingame, CA, today, Skyhook and Eye-Fi plan to announce that Skyhook’s Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS) software will be incorporated into a new, 2-gigabyte Eye-Fi card called the Eye-Fi Explore. The result: automatic geotagging.

The actual method behind the Eye-Fi/Skyhook geotagging process is quite clever. At the moment each picture is saved to the card, the Skyhook software records the IDs of nearby Wi-Fi networks. As the photos are being uploaded later, the software communicates with Skyhook’s servers—which contain a huge database of the locations of Wi-Fi networks around the country—and uses the recorded network IDs to calculate a latitude and longitude for each picture. That data is then inserted into the EXIF section of the data file for each image. (EXIF, the Exchangeable Image Format, was developed as a way to save information about the time and date an image was taken, the camera’s exposure settings, and the like.)

“It’s pretty amazing stuff,” says Ted Morgan, CEO at Skyhook. “A lot of the camera folks are trying to figure out how to add wireless for data transfer, and how to add geotagging. They struggle because there is no good way to put GPS into a digital camera—most pictures are taken indoors, where GPS doesn’t reach, and the power-up and startup requirements for GPS are really prohibitive. But the Eye-Fi Explore works with any camera that takes an SD card.”

The Eye-Fi Explore comes with another feature that makes it a significant improvement over the company’s first-generation cards. In the past, Eye-Fi’s system only worked with home wireless networks. But starting in June, the Explore card will allow cameras to connect to the Wayport network of commercial Wi-Fi hotspots. Wayport runs networks in more than 10,000 locations around the world, including McDonald’s restaurants, Hertz rental locations, and the lobbies of many hotel chains. Just turn on the camera within range of a Wayport access point, and the card will automatically upload photos to the Web; you can even set the system to download the photos later to your computer.

Along with geotagging, the ability to upload photos from public hotspots was the feature most requested by Eye-Fi owners, according to the company. Personally, I wonder how many Eye-Fi users will go out of their way to find Wayport locations. I’d be much more likely to use such a service myself if it worked at Starbucks hotspots—I rely on the chain for their Wi-Fi connectivity as much as for their coffee. But I can understand why that isn’t yet part of Eye-Fi’s offerings, given that Starbucks has ditched its old Wi-Fi provider, T-Mobile, and is in the middle of a nationwide changeover to AT&T.

Meanwhile, the Eye-Fi Explore seems to offer the easiest way yet for average digital photographers to map their pictures. The card goes on sale June 6 at retail websites including Amazon, Apple, and Buy.com. The suggested retail price will be $129—which is way more than a plain 2-gigabyte SD card will cost you, but hey, it’s got a radio inside.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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