Thursday, April 18, 2013

Defining Location-Based Services and Locative Media

In writing a paper on locative technologies, I found that the definitions of the key terms locative media (LM) and location-based services (LBS) out there are poor. Both academic and trade sources are either nebulously vague or miss the defining criteria and instead focus on the resulting effects. Wikipedia, for once, is useless.  I also believe definitions should be as parsimonious as possible (something academics do very poorly).

I've taken a shot at trying to define these terms before. But I think I'm getting closer to a useful definition:

Locative media and location-based services are digital media applications,
normally delivered via a mobile device connected to the Internet,
that use the geographic position of the device to
deliver geographically relevant content back to the user.

Considering common usage, I am tempted to remove the word "normally" from the above definition as the terms are almost used exclusively for Internet-connected mobile devices.

  • Automatic positioning is not a necessity - users can select their location themselves, for example via scanning a coded image, selecting from a list, or entering a specific number, or a combination of methods (as Foursquare does)
  • Graphical user interface, multimedia, and user interaction - bare-bones, single modality applications can be quite effective, for example SMS-based info, audio-only guides
  • Content form is open - it can be information, news, social media, personal communication, entertainment, gaming, maps, directions, reviews, etc.

What's the difference between LM and LBS?
Great question - and there's no exact answer. I have never seen any one attempt to draw a clear distinction. In fact, the two terms are used so interchangeable within the past few years that they are almost synonymous in common usage.

There are some slight differences, however, that can be seen in the words themselves. Location-based services imply a service framework that is consistent with computer science and thus used more by developers and industry. Whereas, locative media focus on the media and its role and is used more by communication and media scholars. Earlier in the two terms history, LBS was also used to include GPS navigation devices, such as TomTom. Locative media was adopted by new media artists and thus the terms often carries with it the association of offering artistic experiences rather than the "service" type info (e.g. directions, contact details) of LBS. Also, locative media is used by some people to include any medium that exclusively delivers place-based information, such in-store digital signage and interactive kiosks in malls and museums.

The need for consistent terminology
As can be seen that new terms often change their meaning and that meanings can be in flux for many years. But, I think it is important to have consistent terminology for developers, marketers, scholars, and particularly and users. So I'm not sure it's helpful now for some people to still call paper maps and graffiti as locative media (even though they are relevant to our understanding of new media forms). This is my attempt to clarify the terms, but I'd love to hear how other people define the terms.

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