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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[March 20, 2002]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

The Sport Of (Cyber) Kings

GeoFerret. Bigdog & Crustacean. Brewmeister Hops & Smelly. Sound like the band lineup at a nightclub? They're notthey're an example of three groups that participate in what is arguably the only sport ever spawned by the Internet and other digital technologies. (Online gaming does not count, I don't care how great a warrior your character is.)

It's called geocaching, and it conjures up images of pale-skinned techno-geeks emerging from their homes, blinking in the bright sunlight and trying to figure out how to affix backpacks to their backs. The most important requirement to participate in geocaching is possession of a GPS (global positioning satellite) unit. Enthusiasts set up "caches" all over the world and then share the coordinates with other interested parties on Web sites devoted to the hobby. Geocachers tramp through the woods (or mountains, or shoreline, or bus station, for that matter), and using their handheld GPS units, locate the "cache" from the coordinates they lifted off the Internet. The individual who locates the cache usually removes something from the stash, but etiquette requires him or her to leave something in return.

How popular is it? According to one of the sport's home pages, Geocaching.com, "[T]here are 14,249 active caches in 111 countries. In the last 7 days, there have been 9,415 new logs written by 3,054 account holders." If I had to guess, I'd say that's more people geocaching than playing, for instance, whiffleball.

It sounds easy, but the challenge is built into the game by placing the caches in hard-to-reach places, which turns the hunt into a bona fide outdoor adventure. (Those of you who spend hours a day online, do you remember the big airy place with the blue overhead and the large fiery thing in the sky? It's called the outdoors.) It's not unheard of for caches to be located on the tops of mountains, on the sides of cliffs or even underwater. Sites are usually ranked by their difficultyone that appeals to a family with small children, for instance, probably wouldn't be particularly attractive to a group of seasoned mountain climbers.

For a quick review of GPS technology, a global positioning satellite unit is a small, often handheld device that can pinpoint a location anywhere on the planet within a few feet. The device communicates with satellites bought and paid for (and launched) by the U.S. Department of Defense. These 24 satellites, and their ground stations, form a global radio navigation network that once existed exclusively for use by the U.S. government, but has, as of May 2000, been made available to the rest of us (which is good, since we picked up its $12 billion tab.)

Personal GPS units were expensive in the early days and were usually only found on the boats of wealthy individuals, but nowadays you can buy a basic one for $100. Like any consumer item, the more you spend, the more sexy features you get, such as a built-in compass, mapping software, a car mount kit, etc. In a nutshell, a global positioning satellite broadcasts its position to your GPS unit, and the travel time of the radio signal allows the unit to pinpoint your exact location (the process is referred to as "triangulation"). If you plan on buying a unit for the purpose of geocaching, it may be worth it to spend a little more money, as the cheaper units reportedly don't work well in dense tree cover, which is where many caches tend to be located.

In any case, a stash hunter enters the coordinates (the "waypoint") of the cache into his or her unit, and then sets off on a merry trek to find the hidden treasure. Once the hunter finds the stash and removes an item and then leaves an item, he or she makes an entry into the log book (the only mandatory item in the cache). Common items contained in caches around the world are software, CDs, newspaper clippings, photos, cash, trading cards and a million different kinds of small trinkets.

Variations in geocaching are cropping up for those individuals who are not content with a day's hike and a quick payoff. The location of a final cache might be provided one clue at a time, with each clue requiring a visit to a teaser cache, in the manner of a scavenger hunt. The individuals who set up the caches are quickly becoming more daring and sophisticated (and eager to watch a bunch of techies scrambling all over the surface of the planet).

Also becoming popular is "geodashing," in which coordinates are randomly chosen, often by a computer, and a group of individuals race to be the first to reach the spot, hoping it's not in the middle of a freeway, inside a nuclear reactor or in the Queen of England's personal bathroom. (The Dallas Morning News reported that one memorable geodashing event culminated in participants arriving at their final destination to discover it was a nude beach.)

I haven't tried it yet, though I intend to. I visited the Geocaching.com Web site and entered my ZIP code, only to find that there are 609 caches within easy driving distance of my home.

Who knows, some day we might discover that geocaching is a plot hatched by the U.S. Department of Health and our HMOs to get us all off our butts, away from our computers and out for some fresh air and exercise.

The author may be found at 41.125735 latitude and -73.440181 longitude, and contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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