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NYTimes.com Article: What to Do With G.P.S


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What to Do With G.P.S
http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/26/technology/26HUNT.html

October 26, 2000

By JOHN SCHWARTZ

EARLIER this month, Robert A. Casinghino took a walk in the woods. A
student at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he had driven into
the Dutchess County countryside in an old Chevrolet that he had
borrowed from his parents. He was seeking the perfect place to
leave a two-gallon paint bucket with a modest treasure trove: a
waterproof brass match case, a few packages of field rations, a set
of camping utensils, a log book and a pencil.

Mr. Casinghino found a pretty spot in a green thicket. ("It just
felt right," he said later.) He then pulled out his bright yellow
Global Positioning System receiver to record the precise location
and drove home to post the location on the Internet.

He was geocaching, the latest fad in the never-ending pursuit of
ways to use sophisticated technology to accomplish useless things.
Players leave caches and others find them, often hiking for hours
and enduring physical hardships to do so. For hundreds of
enthusiasts worldwide, this high-tech Easter egg hunt is something
to do with gadgets they have bought but may not have much use for.

"I got it, honestly, because it was just a neat toy," Mr.
Casinghino said. "Unfortunately, I'm kind of a geek like that. I go
for every gadget I can afford."

That is one of the reasons he is so excited about geocaching, he
said. "Now with this sport starting up," he explained, "I actually
have a use for it and I don't have to look at people and say,
`Well, I got it to play with.' "

Since May, at least 120 caches have been hidden in 31 states and
13 countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Chile. "I'm
amazed that it took off like it has," said Mike Teague, an early
player from Vancouver, Wash.

Mr. Casinghino, however, said that he had to work at convincing
friends "that it isn't a complete waste of time."

Caches (also called "stashes" by players) generally include a log
book, a disposable camera and inexpensive goodies like backpacking
equipment, batteries or beer. The game resembles an earlier game
called letterboxing, which shuns yuppie toys for the romance of
maps and compasses. But the key to geocaching is the love that
gadgeteers feel for their G.P.S. devices.

The Global Positioning System was developed by the Defense
Department for the military. An orbiting network of 24 satellites
transmits signals that can be picked up by receivers anywhere in
the world; the devices determine location by using those signals to
triangulate. They have been used for years by hikers, boaters and
lovers of high-tech toys. The prices of G.P.S. devices continue to
slide downward as their popularity grows; these days, a handheld
receiver can be had for less than $100.

Until this year, however, the military gave itself an advantage
over any enemies who might use the same network of satellites by
giving the system a form of technomyopia. Under a policy called
selective availability, encryption was used to degrade the signal
for most users, ensuring that while the military would be able to
pinpoint locations within a few yards, most civilian devices would
have a built-in imprecision of about 330 feet.

On May 1, President Clinton announced that he was ending selective
availability, bringing the accuracy of devices for users worldwide
down to within several feet. Mr. Clinton predicted that the
benefits would be plentiful. "For example," he said, "emergency
teams responding to a cry for help can now determine what side of
the highway they must respond to, thereby saving precious minutes."


Of course, hobbyists had other plans. Two days after Mr. Clinton's
announcement, Dave Ulmer, a G.P.S. enthusiast from Beavercreek,
Ore., posted a simple suggestion at alt.geo.satellite-nav. He
wrote, "Now that S.A. is off, we can start a worldwide Stash Game."
There would be just one rule: "Get some stuff; leave some stuff."

In a telephone interview, Mr. Ulmer said he had bought a receiver
for snowmobiling. But he immediately grasped the fact that shutting
off selective availability meant that "for the first time in the
world, you could just be given coordinates and find a small object
on the planet Earth."

The next day, Mr. Ulmer announced that he had left a stash near
Portland, Ore., and gave the coordinates. Mr. Teague read the
notice and found the cache on May 6.

"I was hooked in right there," Mr. Teague said. "I had actually
found something with my G.P.S." (The five-gallon plastic bucket
contained software disks, a can of beans and a slingshot.) Mr.
Teague, in turn, buried two caches in the lava mounds and fields
near Mount St. Helens.

Within days, caches were popping up around the nation, with a
quick- and-dirty Web site (www.triax.com/yngwie/gps.html) to keep
track.

The geocachers say that there is more to finding a cache than
simply following an arrow on a screen. Getting to the caches can
involve strenuous climbing and hiking, and then a little looking
around. In doing so, they happen upon great natural sites and
vistas.

Jeremy Irish, a Web site designer in Bellevue, Wash., who
maintains the leading site for the game, www.geocaching.com, found
one of Mr. Teague's stashes one of eight that he has hunted down.
"There were bugs all over the place," he said. "But it was worth
it."

Mr. Irish said he hoped that his polished site would promote the
game through corporate sponsorship of expensive caches true
treasures. But, he said, the real fun he derives from the game is
"tricking eggheads to go out there and do some hiking to seek out
these caches."

Getting the tech set to trek outdoors is no small feat, Mr.
Casinghino said. "The people I live with here at Marist, and
especially the people online, they're all hard-core computer
users," he said. "When they're not at class or at work, they sit in
front of their machines all day. There's this mind-set that if you
can't do it with a good computer, it's not worth doing."

Mr. Casinghino said he chafed at that. "You can't do everything in
life sitting in front of a monitor," he said. "You have to go out
to do stuff."

Mr. Casinghino experienced the culture clash on Slashdot, a Web
site where the geekerati discuss technology, popular culture and
issues of the day. A brief article about geocaching was met with
scorn.

"This sounds like a very good idea for people other than me,"
wrote a participant in the discussion. "It's not like I am going to
travel a couple of hours (at the least) to go rooting through
someone's garbage."

Another wrote: "I'm not opening no bucket someone left somewhere,
thank you very much."

Mr. Casinghino stands up for his hobby. "I get a lot of `Why
bother? What's the use? Go out, find a bucket, write your name on a
piece of paper, leave? It's a waste of time,' " he said. "The same
can be said of just about anything. Why sit in front of a computer
24-7? Why read this book? Why watch that TV show?" This is
recreation, he said. "And Sometimes recreation is supposed to be a
waste of time."

Mr. Ulmer, however, said he had moved on. "I have no problem with
geocaching," he said. "But it just got a little old to me, finding
a bucket full of goodies."
 


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