Is the Pentagon Laying the Foundation of an Augmented World?

The U.S. military gets around. It is deployed in every time zone on Earth, and must be prepared to deliver munitions with precision anywhere in the world, whenever called upon.  So it built the Global Positioning System of satellites to provide reliable geospatial coordinates both on earth and in orbit, and networked its computers together into this thing called the “internet” to keep its far-flung commanders connected.  Not long afterwards, the private sector jumped on board with these technologies, commercializing them to the point that they are built into the devices that most people around the world carry with them at all times.

NGANow the military may be getting ready to do the same thing all over again.

According to a little-noticed USA Today report last month, the Pentagon’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) issued a request for proposals in March 2013 from potential contractors.  The objective: to develop an “orthorectified image skin” that would provide the base layer for a new, comprehensive map of the world.  “Orthoimagery,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey, means “high resolution aerial images that combine the visual attributes of an aerial photograph with the spatial accuracy and reliability” of a traditional map.

This high-quality digital map would be amalgamated from “commercial and government sources from satellite or airborne,” according to the RFP. “Sensors have included Electro Optical, Multi Sensor Imagery, Light Detection and Ranging, Synthetic Aperture Radar and Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar.” These images would need to be updated “multiple [times] each week.”  These attributes would represent a quantum leap beyond even the best commercially available navigation databases, let alone the aging and limited GPS network.

The motivation behind this new map is the same as the original purpose of GPS.  “A key element necessary to support global readiness is the availability of a current and accurate worldwide image base to ensure a common operational picture for all users,” says the NGA’s RFP.

But with trends such as the Internet of Things, wearable technology and augmented reality just now beginning to take shape, it’s impossible not to imagine the potential for commercializing this new generation of high-resolution digital mapping technology. And as I’ve written about often, the internet’s transition to IPv6 in 2012 made enough room for every single physical object on the surface of the planet to have its own unique IP address (with enough room left over for the rest of this and several other solar systems).

Having everyone–internet service providers, content creators, retailers, and digitally equipped individuals–all working off the same set of high-precision coordinates (as they already do with GPS) would greatly ease the task of digitally enhancing physical objects, retail displays, public areas, and anything else one may wish to augment.  It would provide reliability in the design of geolocation-specific user experiences, and offer redundant methods for wearble devices to recognize and interact with their surroundings.

Of course, such a universal means of collecting and organizing geolocation data also poses unique considerations for privacy–another subject I’ve addressed often.  But the implications on this topic are by no means one-sided. Although universal adoption raises the specter of increased data collection, it also suggests means of controlling access to information that may not otherwise be possible.

Whatever path this technology takes, it is certain that geolocation will remain a hot topic for decades to come.

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