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Trying to Add Context to My Ski Vacation


Last week, my wife Kelle and I celebrated the engagement of two close friends during a backcountry ski trip to Francie's Cabin, a hut south of Breckenridge, CO. In the days before the trip, I had been listening to the book Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, who happen to be keynote speakers at this week's GEOINT conference. 

The book's premise is that 5 prominent elements of technology (mobile devices, social media, big data, sensors and location based services) are converging to transform user experiences in all areas of our lives. Companies can serve users better by knowing more about their environments like; where they are, who they are with, what they're doing, what safety risks are present, and how they feel. The goal is to predict things like; what they might do next, where they go, what are the new safety risks, and will they feel better or worse. Knowing these things ups the odds of delivering a satisfying solution or service.


So, I left Denver with the Age of Context on my mind. How would my use of technology and resulting user experience stack up against the Age of Context?

Drive to trailhead. The trailhead doesn't have an address, so everyone used some combination of an internet description and Google Maps to find the location. We left in separate cars from three separate locations using iPhones to check traffic conditions, get driving directions and coordinate status. We texted our locations (exits, mile markers, landmarks, etc.) and adjusted our paces to arrive at the trail head together. We arrived within 15 minutes of each other. 


In the Age of Context our mobile phones would integrate into our vehicle's navigation and media center. Our cars would be aware of each other via social networks and each party's location and status would be communicated in a joint operational picture on our dashboard. Additionally, our vehicles would engage 4 wheel drive before it was required and we'd know immediately if someone in our party was stuck in the snow. 

Hike to Hut. We started the hike to Francie's Cabin under sunny clear skies and heavy backpacks. About a quarter mile in we could take the short, hard route (steep), or a longer, easier route. We had previously decided the long easy route was the way to go based on a hardcopy US Topographic Map and Garmin GPS unit. But these technologies didn't have current conditions. Was there enough snow? Which route had the most shade (favors ski glide and skier thermoregulation)? How were other skiers on the trails feeling?


In the Age of Context, Satellite imagery would be streamed to our mobile devices and integrated with our GPS position to illustrate the snow coverage ahead on the trail. Info from the mobile devices of other recent travelers would report current conditions to the rest of us in the area. We might choose the harder route if snow was better, there was more shade, or we would get there quicker.

Engagement. Shortly after we arrived at the hut, Brandon convinced Johanne to head out again to see some local scenery. Unbeknownst to Johanne, Brandon would propose and we would ready the hut for a celebration. As with any surprise, everyone needs to be place and ready to yell when they walk through the door. We waited. We wondered. Some of us considered a nap, but were afraid to miss the action.   


If we were already in the Age of Context, our mobile devices would have set up a geofence to alert us when Brandon or Johanne returned to the hut. Nappers would automatically be awakened by alarm and would know exactly when to get in place with the champagne uncorked and the video rolling.  

Backcountry skiing. The next day the goal was to ascend to approximately 13,000 feet and ski a south/southeast facing slope to lower elevation and eventually back to the cabin. The number one goal was to safely navigate to the route, minimizing travel through avalanche prone terrain. One contributor to avalanche risk is the steepness of the slope. To identify these areas, we brought US Topographic Maps with colored overlays of the avalanche prone slope gradients. Brandon even had the slope factor overlay on his GPS unit - not too shabby!


The Age of Context skier would wear goggles that provide the slope overlay (and other factors) in their line of sight. The areas to avoid would appear in front of him as he scanned the landscape with the goggles. This 'augmented reality' view would be particularly useful for skiers who need to deviate from their planned route due to wind, unstable snow or other issues in search of a new, but safe, path to the descent. In the event of an avalanche, the goggle would switch to a search mode to quickly account for other members of the party.

Back to work. To some people these ideas may seemed far-fetched. To others, like the companies mentioned in Age of Context this type of user experience is right around the corner. Later today I'll attend Scoble and Israel's talk at GEOINT. Hope to see you there.


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