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    Learn the stars, by phone
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2009 May 13, 18:02 -0700

    Several companies have just begun adding tiny digital magnetic compasses to 
    smart mobile phones, and recently released tech data (see google news) 
    indicates that the next generation of the iPhone will also have a built-in 
    compass. These compasses, aided, of course, by software models of the Earth's 
    magnetic field, can determine true direction in three dimensions in most 
    parts of the world to an accuracy of one degree or better. The intended 
    application is "enhanced reality" (or similar terms) where the user activates 
    the built-in camera, ubiquitous in phones today, and points it at a scene, 
    like the skyline of Chicago. The device then uses an Internet connection, 
    location data from GPS or wi-fi signals, and the relatively accurate pointing 
    information from the compass to label all of the buildings almost instantly: 
    "Oh, look... there's the world-famous Willis Tower". This info can then be 
    viewed live for countless purposes or saved as metadata with photos. It's a 
    great thing...
    For students of celestial navigation and astronomy generally, the pointing 
    information can be used to identify stars, planets, even bright satellites. 
    This sort of application has been available for a few years in expensive 
    stand-alone devices which have sold well in a niche market, but as this basic 
    astronomical data becomes widely available through "smart" mobile phones, 
    there's a potential for significantly greater basic astronomical knowledge 
    among the wider population. I consider this a real opportunity for celestial 
    navigation and astronomy educators. Though most people living in urban and 
    suburban areas have lost the night sky to so-called light pollution, there is 
    still strong interest. In a year or two, when smart phone users of all ages, 
    but especially young people, can point their phones at a star and say, "Oh, 
    that's Vega... and there's Altair...", it may well be revolutionary. Maybe it 
    will inspire some interest in traditional celestial navigation.
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