The Futurist: GPS, Satellites, and the Future of CE Innovation

You may have seen the Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium around. It’s a handheld gadget that, when pointed at the night sky, instantly directs you to or identifies any star, planet, or constellation up there. For some of them, it even spits out an encyclopedia-esque narrative — like the universe’s largest self-guided museum tour. Vital to the SkyScout’s ability to hone in on celestial bodies is a built-in GPS receiver.

GPS, of course, is satellite-based technology that relies on a series of several dozen orbiters. There are a bunch of other satellite-based techs out there—satellite radio and TV come to mind—but unlike those services, GPS has a secret weapon: The US Government.

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Launching and maintaining satellites is enormously expensive. Think of it this way — only 40 countries in the world have space programs, and most of them have only slightly more juice than your neighbor’s model rocket. The barrier to entry for a new company entering a satellite-based industry is insanely enormous. Billions and billions of dollars enormous.

Except for GPS. That’s because GPS satellites are quite literally your tax dollars at work. The US government launches them, maintains them, and, unlike your local DMV or public school, actually takes decent care of them (mostly for military purposes.) Ever since 1983, when the Department of Defense declassified access to GPS, the doors have been open to anybody with a bit of engineering know-how to tap into the satellites for whatever the heck they wanted.

What this means for innovation is absolutely marvelous. While satellite radio and TV companies have an insanely high cash barrier to entry, any basement electronics shop can tack a relatively cheap GPS receiver onto a product and have a field day with creative applications — and with little financial risk.

And since a massive part of the overhead is covered by the government, for consumers, most GPS receivers are a steal.

To illustrate this point, we need look no further than the TV and radio industries:

Satellite TV:
Major players: 2 (EchoStar, DirecTV)
Subscription fees: ~$30 – $120 per month

Satellite Radio:
Major players: 2 (XM, Sirius)
Subscription fees: ~$13 per month

Major players: Dozens
Subscription fees: Typically none

Just walk into the car nav aisle at a Best Buy and the fruit of this competition is evident. In recent years, GPS companies have engaged in an arms race to tack more and more useful teachers onto nav units. Traffic mapping and weather forecasting used to be the things of sci-fi movies, but are now easily found on a Garmin.

Compare this to satellite TV. Unless you count high-definition support, the number of features added to satellite TV since its launch has been roughly zero. The reason is simple: When you have as much money riding on a service as DirecTV and EchoStar do, there is really no incentive to rock the boat or take any risks.

However, the real evidence of GPS’ open source-fueled innovation can be found in devices like the SkyScout. Car navigation is a natural fit for GPS, but amateur astronomy? That takes a bit of inspired brain juice.

Connecting the dots, it’s not hard to see the future filed with insane and amazing new CE products that, in some way, are based on GPS. The limits of what can be done with GPS-aided gadgets are only limited by what engineers and designers can dream of. And because the technology is essentially subsidized and the barrier to entry is tiny, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the neatest products to come out are from companies we haven’t heard of yet–the kind of guys that have good ideas and nothing to lose. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the way product innovation should be.

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.