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RealTime IT News

Human Search Engines Are More Fun

I recently returned from a vacation sojourn on a quiet little lake in the Maine woods. Beautiful place, and very tech unfriendly.

Cell phone coverage? Spotty, if at all. A 26k dial-up connection was as good as it got.

After a few days of high-tech separation anxiety, I accepted the unplugged factor and focused on important vacation stuff. What to grill. The best bait to hook a prize-winning bass. Snapping photos of Loons. Searching for my lost shaker of salt.

With the unwinding underway, I started to think that life in the woods means not being into tech the way city dwellers are.

Wrong.

Google's latest toolbar is just as cool there as it is in Gotham. But it's not what has people talking, as nifty as this week's release is.

Sure, finding people who want to discuss tablet PCs, smart phones, viruses, the Windows Vista beta or anything extensible is a challenge in those parts. But mention the Global Positioning System , satellites and Geocaching ? Now you're talking.

Tromp out into the deep woods, where electricity stopped miles and miles ago, traditional radio reception is null, and you would likely hear happy campers listening to the Red Sox on XM Satellite Radio. Friday evenings, when folks piled into so-called party boats (barge-like recreational boats that hold between 10 and 20 people and chug along like an old-fashioned steamship), satellite radios provided the background music.

What were they talking about? For anyone not blessed with natural navigational skills, how GPS for the car is a godsend.

They buzzed about satellite images in Google's mapping and MSN's Virtual Earth search services. Even buzzier: handheld GPS navigators, and Geocaching, the high-tech hide-and-go-seek treasure mapping sport.

It's spreading faster than a jet-ski at full throttle, and for good reason. The sport combines the Internet and satellite tech to create old-fashioned social networking: spending time with people, instead of staring into a computer screen.

As the official Geocaching.com site puts it, it truly is the sport where you are the search engine.

The FAQ page on the geocaching.com site explains that the movement began not long after then-president Clinton removed restrictions on commercial satellite usage in May of 2000.

Two days later, somebody in Seattle hid a container of goodies, and posted satellite coordinates of where it could be found. Another guy found the goodies and up went a Web site about it, later posted to the sci.geo.satellite-nav newsgroup. Today, according to the site, there are 194,813 active caches (or hidden goodies) in 217 countries.

The site is run by Jeremy Irish and Mike Teague of the software firm Groundspeak, which creates toolsets for location-based technologies.

The Geocaching rules are pretty simple, once you've familiarized yourself with the device and how to read longitude and latitude coordinates. Most important, the rules say the stuff left behind must be environmentally friendly. The game can be challenging. And did I mention fun?

One poster is directing people to figure out the highest spot in New York's Central Park. Here's another one with the following coordinates:

N 400 47.09 degrees W 0730 59.149
UTM: 18T E 585571 N 4515366

"Tupperware container with black base and clear top. Invisible until you reach for it. Please return to same location with care," goes the clue. (I'd give you more hints but you gotta join and agree to the rules.)

One experienced treasure-mapper wrote on the geocaching forum that he "reached, peeked, scratched chin, but still nothing." Had fun though. Another group is still searching, and enjoying the view by a body of water.

"Didn't find a cache," wrote another. But, it was "a beautiful day to watch the boats."

As handheld GPS devices come down in price -- simple ones are just under $100 -- the satellite craze is only going to pick up steam. You can see it as the treasure-mapping behind Geocaching becomes even more popular. Marketing folks are already in on the hunt too. Jeep has a promotion running on the geocaching.com site. A corporate version, called GeoTeaming, is catching on in the business world.

Even for a GPS newbie like me (although I'm in New York, my device still wants to locate me somewhere in China -- must be a sign of the times), the possibilities and joy of participating in a treasure-hunt represent what social networking is supposed to be: using technology to get up from a computer and, in this case, hunt for environmentally-friendly stuff with friends old and new. (It may be a little tougher to map coordinates between tall buildings, but it's worth it.)

Just like we helped finance the Internet, we taxpayers helped finance the military's research and development of satellites. Now, it's our turn to have some fun with them.

As for my lost shaker of salt, next time I'll mark it as a waypoint with my navigator.

Erin Joyce, executive editor of internetnews.com, spent her vacation near the 45th parallel.