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From a Military Tech to a Key Component in Augmented Reality – The Evolution of GPS in The Mobile Industry

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“It’s hard to remember our life without GPS. The technology provides position and time keeping capabilities that power the complex systems underlying our modern global economy. Communications, finance, and logistics industries transformed under a global synchronous time that enabled our modern cellular networks, financial transaction timestamps, and unprecedented global trade.”

These words, which open the first chapter of “The GPS Playbook: How a space-based technology generated the largest venture outcomes in history” by Space Capital and Silicon Valley Bank, remind us that the GPS technology ingrained in our lives is not always obvious. This playbook reviews the history of satellite-based navigation, how the technology became as widespread as it is today, how it evolved and created multiple industries and what the future holds.

In its original form, the NAVSTAR GPS was a navigation program of the U.S. Air Force – and it wasn’t a successful one. GPS was only recognized as a groundbreaking military technology after it was reframed as a highly accurate guidance system for U.S. Army aerial attacks. In 1978, the first GPS satellite was launched, and by 1999, the U.S. government had spent more than $4 billion launching GPS satellites into orbit.

At the end of 1983, an unfortunate plane crash that could have been prevented with GPS technology caused the U.S. president at the time, Ronald Reagan, to legalize public use of GPS. From that point onward, GPS technology seeped to the civil market and the use of it grew larger and larger. The first GPS receiver was created in 1984 and was incorporated into products from all industries. The most impactful integration was that with mobile phones. The merger between GPS and mobile phones created a whole new industry – location-based services and applications (LBS) – and in turn changed delivery services, driver and rider services, gaming and much more.

These days, with the improvement of the GPS infrastructure, the main focus has shifted to Augmented Reality (AR) and how it can be improved. The gaming industry was the first to experiment in AR, sending players to locate virtual assets in the real world using a combination of their cell phone’s location services and its camera. In the case of navigation, AR and GPS combine to provide directions on a screen or a front windshield of a car with a layer of warnings, signs, guidance lines and icons.

But some experts say the improvements made by the next generation of GPS satellites are still insufficient in order to make AR part of our everyday reality. The keys to make it so are precise location and orientation data, both of which have yet to be achieved due to errors in satellite or signal refraction. Until those two keys are fully achieved, large companies and small startups will continue to provide easy and accessible tools for developers to design AR apps, ensuring that AR will become more common.

As stated in “The GPS Playbook” – “When GPS was developed 40 years ago, no one could have foreseen that the technology would give rise to a phenomenon like Pokémon GO, that combined GPS with new technology like AR. This game not only grossed more than $3.1 billion in revenue to-date, but also drove new types of location-based marketing and AR-based entertainment. GPS demonstrated the incredible growth and value potential when the Space and Tech sectors converge.”

No one could have foreseen the immense impact GPS technology would have on the commercial sector, but after it happened, the future of GPS seems more market-changing and revenue-producing than ever, and can be a case study for other space-based technologies.