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July 24, 2008

Eye-Fi on the Loose

With the help of an Eye-Fi wireless SD card I can share and geotag a photo of the FDR skate park in Philadelphia.

Tired of straining to view photos on his digital camera's tiny LCD screens and sick of losing spontaneously snapped cell-phone pictures to cell phones gone by, Alex C. Pasquariello examines the wireless ways to upload images to his computer and the Web.

The promise of Eye-Fi's wireless SD cards would seem much too complicated and functional to come to fruition in a normal-sized memory card. But pop it into any old digital camera saving to an SD card, snap a photo, and the camera wirelessly uploads its stored pictures to a Windows or Mac OSX computer. It also will put your memories in the cloud, uploading them to whatever photo-sharing site you use. If that site supports geotagging, your antics will show up plotted on a map, retracing your every move. And again, all with an SD card--no longer, thicker, or wider than the one you're using now.

Seems too easy, right? I tested out the wireless SD card last Sunday in Philly. One of my favorite things to do on the road is hit up the local skate spots, so I started my morning at the legendary FDR in South Philly's Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. This skater-funded and -built course curls in, around, up, and down the supports elevating I-95 (a.k.a. the Delaware Expressway). (The graffiti scrawled on the banks and walls, alone, are worth the shot.)

From there I headed north to South Street and one of the City of Brotherly Love's true gems, Magic Gardens, where it would be impossible to take a bad picture.

Magic Gardens
[Click for larger photo]

The day before, I quickly downloaded the Eye-Fi software and set up my card via the provided USB drive. I popped it in my old Pentax Optio and later took a quick snapshot in Rittenhouse Square after an early dinner. That night, when I turned on the camera in range of my Wi-Fi network it automatically uploaded the picture to my MacBook and Google Picasa gallery. I then received a text message alerting me to the fact. Even more impressive, the Web program read that there were coordinates with the picture and pinned the memory on a Google Map, right on the Square.

The key to this geotagging is not GPS, but instead some sort of trigonometry voodoo accomplished via signals from land-based Wi-Fi, GPS satellites, and cell towers. It's the same technology that Steve Jobs employed in the pre-3G iPhone, which, like your digital camera, doesn't have GPS. Read all about it here.

In a wired American city center, this geotagging solution will work, but depending on how far you stray from the concentration of signals, the triangulation becomes more inaccurate. When my FDR shots loaded to Picasa, they were pinned in the massive park, but on the other side of several ball fields and a massive lake. Since half of FDR's mystique lies in its under-the-bridgeness, I had to move them--although now they appear on the bridge.

Magic Gardens is on a West-East artery of Philadelphia art, dining, and nightlife. It's in the heart of it all. Eye-Fi put the shots of this block-long installation at a spot within a half block, but the pin pointed to the street just north (Lombard) of it, which, again, sort of defeats the purpose of geotagging a shot on this Philadelphia strip.

Maybe it's just the map-and-compass-course fanatic in me, but if I'm going to plot something on the map, I need it to be right, exactly where it was to make it authentic. It only takes a second to nudge the pin down.

The other nifty feature of the Eye-Fi Explore Card is its ability to upload images from thousands of Wi-Fi networks sprinkled across the country via a partnership with the company Wayport. In Philadelphia, it turns out that most of these networks are in McDonalds, with a smattering in Hertz locations, and a few hotels. This also means it won't start uploading at the coffee shop or other random, free Wi-Fi spots you hit up (and even if the card had that capability, you would still have to take your camera out and turn it on). This presented me with a problem; I have a history of abusing the Big Macs. I think it's really progressive that McDonalds everywhere are getting wired, but I didn't feel like capping my day with a double cheeseburger regression. So I didn't really get to test the ability to upload pictures while away from a pre-configured Wi-Fi, and I doubt the feature would be that dependable for my travels, since I no longer do the drive-thru like I used to.

A word on this pre-configured Wi-Fi: By this I mean a network you've set up on the card through the USB reader and the software installed on your computer. That basically tethers you to your computer and card reader. I often travel with my laptop, so I'm not too hung up on this function requirement.

Buy or sell the Eye-Fi Explore at $129? Well, to be honest, I'm sold on the card just to be able to wirelessly upload to my laptop and the Web within my home (or other pre-configured Wi-Fi). You can get that functionality with the Eye-Fi Share card, which costs $30 less. Still, I think the Explore's geotagging feature is fun for city travel and the possibility of being able to upload on the go intriguing. If you enjoy digital photography and the emerging field of geotagging and photo blogging but don't want to invest in a new camera, it's a great pick. It also gets my vote for coolest consumer Web site domain:


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