So, Like, When Is the Matrix Going to Be Real?

Sunday's afternoon seminar, "Toward a Spatial Reality," delved into the mysteries of geo-tagging and included several instances of semantic amazingness. (At a certain point, one panelist complimented another's idea by remarking that he was "riding on a fascinating tiger," and at another point, an apparent lunatic in the audience started screaming about how the GeoWeb was soon going to be in the hands of mastermind criminals: Wa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

The room was filled with engineering whizzes and other people really excited about modeling a virtual 3D version of the real world and layering it on Google Earth's satellite maps in order to see every building in every city in eye-popping, textured detail. There was also much talk about the use of ComStat by police departments to track the location of cop cars. ComStat basically allows police to be held accountable when crime rates don't seem to be going down, say, in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, because all the officers are clustered around the Dunkin' Donuts on Howard Street. (You watch The Wire, right?) The big idea is that ComStat could be used in lots of cities for lots of problems, in a way similar to New York's use of 311, the municipal help line. But instead of dialing up on the telephone to report rats in your neighbor's trashcan, or a big pothole on Broadway, users would upload photos or stories about their issues to ComStat-like Google Earth layover software, and this would be monitored by city officials.

This sort of real-time information layover is being used right now by CBS to mashup breaking news reports with maps, so you can see exactly where in the world all the trouble is happening, and avoid those places. (Kidding, sort of.)

The seminar wrapped up with a Utopian vision of a future, maybe just a few years away, when cell phone GPS systems will not only act as map-based mobile Web browsers that give you (or allow you to submit) news and information about what's going on around you, but also act as negotiators on your behalf, pinging nearby businesses you might be interested in to get the best deals on products and services. In this future, we'll always be interacting simultaneously with the world around us, and with the reflection of the world displayed on our GPS systems and enhanced with user-submitted info. The upshot? We're getting closer and closer to entering the Matrix. —Megan Miller