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An augmented reality tool is used on a phone in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Augmented-reality software lays information over an Amsterdam hotel, seen via a smart phone's camera.

Photograph by Jerry Lampen, Reuters

Patrick J. Kiger

for National Geographic News

Published December 9, 2011

Already go-to travel companions, smart phones are poised to take travelers into a new reality—where little is lost in translation, the traffic lights are always green, and much more.

Back in the late 1980s the Magellan Systems Corp introduced the first handheld satellite-navigation device for consumers, which tapped the U.S. Defense Department's Global Positioning System—the same one used by the Pentagon's fighter pilots and Special Forces commandos—to pinpoint the user's location anywhere on Earth. It was a revolutionary development for everyone from backpackers and yachting enthusiasts to vacationers trying to make their way around unfamiliar cities.

Three decades later, once exotic GPS is now a stock feature in iPhones, iPads, Android devices and other smart phones and tablets that are also equipped with Internet access.

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Now the combination of GPS and Internet access with digital photography, maps, social networking, language-translation software, and augmented reality—which essentially embeds useful information into one's surroundings—portends an even more startling transformation of the way that we'll be traveling in 2012 and the years to come.

"Above all, the impact of this marriage is all about personalization," explains Rich Whitaker, a Massachusetts-based travel-industry marketing expert and a "digital ambassador" for the travel news website Travelllll.com.

"Your average user can pinpoint his location and then not only guide himself or herself through uncharted territory but also have relevant recommendations pushed his way, which is very powerful."

A recent survey of more than 2,700 U.S. travelers by the website TripAdvisor found that 44 percent viewed their smart phones as "go to" resources during their 2012 trips. Among the most frequent travelers—hardcore road warriors who travel for business—84 percent now use smart phones as a travel tool, according to another recent study by the research firm PhoCusWright.

According the PhoCusWright study, 80 percent of business travelers are using their smart phones with GPS chips for basic navigation when they're away from home.

1. Taming Road Rage

Rich Diamond, a New Jersey-based insurance-industry consultant, for example, has come to rely heavily upon a smart phone app that not only pinpoints his destination on a map, but also recommends the quickest driving routes and even uses real-time data gathered over the Internet to alert him to traffic jams ahead.

Such tools are growing increasingly sophisticated. One smart phone app, Traffic View, now even allows a user to see live video images from 3,400 cameras mounted at intersections in cities across the United States.

SignalGuru, an app recently developed by Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, allows drivers to adjust the pace of their cars so that they can roll through a long string of green lights.

2. Mapping Your Interior Life

Google is pushing the envelope even further. On phones and tablets using its Android operating system, the software giant recently introduced a new feature allowing users to track their location indoors, on floor plans of the interiors of buildings.

Also on the horizon: "Mobile apps of airports will soon give travelers the ability to walk down the Jetway from a plane in, say, Denver, point their mobile device in the air and be directed to anything from food courts to electrical outlets," Travelllll.com's Whitaker predicted.

(See pictures: Five future flight technologies.)

Another game-changing innovation is the intermingling of GPS and social networking.

3. Smarter, More Social Maps

Already, smart-phone users can use apps such as Foursquare and Wenzani to search for tips on good restaurants and sightseeing recommendations in a particular area from other social network users.

"In New York, where there can be 20 restaurants within two blocks, this comes in very handy," said Dennis Schaal, North American editor for the travel-technology website Tnooz.

Another app, BitFlx, allows social networkers to post videos shot at a particular location and tag them by time, location, and event type, so that travelers can see what's been happening lately at their destination.

Travel visionaries foresee even more powerful tools that use augmented reality (AR), a technology that embeds additional information in a map or street view. AR relies on Internet databases, image-recognition technology, and possibly even radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags embedded in locations.

Already, a software platform called Layar Vision allows app developers to attach links for audio, video, and 3-D images in the landscape, as seen through a smart phone camera lens.

Expect to see today's nascent AR apps followed in 2012 by more far powerful ones.

"Soon, users will be able to point their mobile device at a building or an object for further description," Whitaker predicted.

4. A Translator in Your Pocket

The familiar knock on smart phones is that they're great for doing everything except making phone calls. But in terms of communicating with the locals on foreign trips, the smart phone is likely to become an increasingly must-have tool.

Already, there are visual translator apps such as WordLens, which can translate words on signs and even in newspapers, and verbal apps such as SpeechTrans and Google Translate can translate a user's spoken words into a variety of different languages.

But the real game-changer could be two-way translation apps that will translate another speaker's responses in French, Chinese or Swahili into English.  One already available app, Vocre, offers translations of brief conversations on a fee-per-use basis.

On the horizon, a company called Sakhr has developed an Arabic speech-to-speech app for smart phones that can reportedly translate conversations in real time with 97 percent accuracy.

Whitaker expects to see such conversational tools eventually merge with visual translators into one all-purpose app.

"I think what will drive traveler translation apps is camera recognition, with its ability to capture an image, then automatically pull in various bits of relevant data to assist the user," he said.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

If anything stands in the way of travelers making use of all these technologies in 2012, it's the increasing stress that travelers may put on mobile network capabilities as people use more and more data-intensive apps.

"Networks are more congested than ever, and average fail-rate percentages are growing higher and higher," Whitaker said. "The current cellular infrastructure will have to be addressed fairly quickly to relieve the congestion."

As a recent Wired.com article details, the GPS system itself faces potential threats, ranging from increasing competition for the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum it uses, to disruptions by solar weather and even deliberate attempts to jam GPS signals with devices available over the Internet.

At a recent symposium at Stanford University, Brad Parkinson, the engineering professor known as the father of GPS, warned that maintaining the stability of the satellite system would require a global effort.

But those worries about GPS may eventually become obsolete.

Boeing, the aerospace giant that maintains the Pentagon's navigational satellites, is developing a new satellite system, Boeing Time and Location (BTL), which the company plans to begin rolling out in 2015, according to a Federal Communications Commission filing.

BTL, which initially will be used by the military and civilian emergency 911 systems in rural areas, will be more powerful than GPS, and reportedly will be able to reach deep into buildings.

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