Oh Ranger! ParkFinder guides you to public parkland

I often forget the amazing wealth of national parks, hiking trails and historic sites within easy access of my home. For instance, did you know there’s 260 sites within 100 miles of Brooklyn, NY? In fact, iPhone users can now find out for themselves just how many great outdoor sites are near their hometown using a great smartphone app called Oh Ranger! ParkFinder.

The American Park Network, a publishing company that creates visitor guides for national parks, is behind Oh Ranger, a searchable database of outdoor activities ranging from cycling to historical sites to camping to bird watching. In addition to their free web database, they’ve released Oh Ranger! ParkFinder for iPhone and iPad Touch, a fantastically useful mobile extension that makes it easy to track down your favorite activity at a park near you. Once you’ve downloaded the app, you can easily search for parks based on favorite activities, search for a specific park, or use your iPhone’s location to find sites nearby.

Whether you’re a die-hard outdoor lover or simply looking for some great weekend or daytrip getaways, Oh Ranger! Parkfinder is a nifty, convenient way to find it. You give it a try for free by downloading from the iTunes app store. Although there’s not yet an Android version of the app, the Oh Ranger website utilizes the same park database.

“Place-dropping”: the new social currency?

You just landed in Paris. What’s the first thing you do? Head for the passport line? Withdraw some money at the ATM? How about updating your Twitter/Facebook status? It’s called ‘place-dropping,’ an increasingly popular form of “digital bragging” about where you’ve been online. With many of us carrying laptops, checking mobile phones and using location services, it’s easier than ever before to log on and update our status, notifying our friends back home about our adventures. But is there a difference between simply sharing news and simply being obnoxious?

Like so much of social media etiquette, the proper rules of place dropping are still up for debate. Writer Spud Hilton took a stab at laying some ground rules in a place-dropping article on World Hum last month, suggesting a good place drop “conveys you were there” but doesn’t “overplay your hand.” But Hilton is talking mostly about place dropping during face-to-face conversations. What about doing it online? In some cases, there’s justification. For instance updating curious friends and anxious family members on where you are. For frequent travelers, a place drop is also a research tool. I often sent requests for destination insights during my recent trip to Southeast Asia. And it’s a handy way to find travel friends who are nearby.

Yet place dropping has limits. It prevents us from truly immersing and enjoying ourselves in our destinations. And if done excessively on social media, place-dropping alienates friends and followers. At a time when we can get anywhere on earth in 24 hours or less, it also seems increasingly redundant.

What do you think about place dropping? Is it just a sign of our ever-more-connected global lifestyle? Or something more heinous? Leave us a comment to start the discussion.Related:
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Before you go, be sure to check out Travel Talk, in which the guys visit the spiciest restaurant in NYC — try to slake their thirst with beer.

Augmented reality: a traveler’s dream?

Gadling has previously investigated how mobile devices are changing the way we travel, whether it’s helping us navigate public transit, letting you make cheap phone calls abroad or showing us location-based maps of nearby restaurants, hotels and businesses. Now, an emerging mobile phone technology called augmented reality looks ready to bring this mobile experience to the “next level.”

It works like this: you start up an application on your phone using a built-in accelerometer, GPS and camera. As the application scans the world around you, it recognizes what you see, providing images, web links and information depending on where and what you’re looking at. Think of it almost like the real world was “clickable.” You could be walking down the street, pass by a restaurant, and have a link pop-up with a menu and weekly specials. Or in the case of augmented reality applications like acrossair on the iPhone (shown above) it can help you figure out the location of the nearest subway or metro stop. Other applications, like Wikitude and the Dutch service Layar let you browse directories of ATM’s, bars and hotels around you.

As with any cool new technology, there’s sometimes a catch. At this point, augmented reality apps like acrossair, Layar and Wikitude are only available to users abroad in Europe, although the companies are all promising a launch for U.S. users later this year. You’ll also need to have a supported phone – in this case either a device with Android or an iPhone 3GS to take advantage. Still, the coming of augmented reality offers a bright view of our travel future. Imagine taking a trip where we were free of our guidebooks, able to have information on transit, shopping, eating and sleeping at our fingertips when we wanted it and hidden from view when we didn’t. It’s a concept that is rapidly approaching reality, though still working out some kinks – don’t throw out that map just yet.

Stweet mashes up Twitter with Google Street View

It seems like we can’t get enough of Twitter lately. In fact, as the service continues to add new users, the number of applications that help you use it for travel only seems to grow. Recently we learned a quirky new tool called Stweet that links up the street level views found on Google Maps with the power of Twitter.

Although applications like Twittervision already show you a real time map of what and where people are tweeting, Stweet is slightly different. Instead of showing an anonymous map, Stweet pulls the approximate location of where a person submitted their message, attaching it to a street address and visualizing the location using Google’s nifty street view tool. The app can be customized to let you view specific cities like San Francisco or London.

How would someone use this for travel, you might be saying? One potential application might be mapping a city’s potential hangout spots. Guidebooks are great at telling you about good places to go six months ago…but they’re horrible keeping up with the day a visitor happens to be in town. Sure, that cafe in Paris sounded great in your Lonely Planet, but what about this August, when you’re actually around? Twitter is great at picking up trending topics and keywords – Stweet takes that idea to the next level. You can narrow down to specific cities and neighborhoods, seeing the areas that seem to be buzzing and the local topics that have people talking.

That said, an application like Stweet has the power to backfire horribly – the data isn’t necessarily reliable and you can’t necessarily confirm that a given tweeter shares your tastes. It also seems to be struggling with technical difficulties – as of the time of this writing the site seemed to be down. Still, as more and more phones share location data and mobile devices become more powerful, you can bet you’ll be seeing more of these types of services coming soon to a phone near you.

You can find Gadling on Twitter, as well as the most of the Gadling Team: Mike Barish, Kraig Becker, Catherine Bodry, Alison Brick, Justin Glow, Aaron Hotfelder, Tom Johansmeyer, Jeremy Kressmann, Heather Poole, Jamie Rhein, Annie Scott, Karen Walrond, Kent Wien, Brenda Yun.

Gadling’s guide to GPS and location based services

Traveling for me evokes memories of ancient explorers, navigating across vast oceans with only a sextant and the light of the stars and moon. Or the arduous journey of Lewis and Clark as they mapped a slow path across the great wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase. We’ve certainly come a long way since then in terms of navigation – in fact the now-ubiquitous availability of handheld GPS units and Google Maps has made finding your way around in unknown places a cinch.

But in fact, GPS and Google Maps is only the beginning. As we saw with yesterday’s new 3G iPhone with built-in GPS, we’re in the midst of a new era of “location aware devices.” This includes everything from from cameras with geotagging to “location-aware” mobile phones which promise to revolutionize the way we travel and gather information for our trips. Follow along and we’ll take you through Gadling’s guide to GPS and location based services.

Mobile Phones and Location Based Services
A whole range of mobile devices are now on the market that can pinpoint your exact location. Companies like Blackberry, Nokia, Motorola and Apple all make devices which can access this information over the network. This has enabled a huge range of new ways to use your phone, from getting turn-by-turn driving directions to more advanced applications that combine the power of social networks with your location. Services like Where and Socialight not only know where you are, they also let you access location-specific “tags” left by other users in popular locations. Want to know the best place to grab a drink when most bars close at 11pm in London? Find the closest late-night pub by subscribing to Socialight’s “Late London” channel. Looking for a place to cool off this summer in the Northeast United States? Check out the “Swimming holes” group. Drank too much coffee this morning? Better get MizPee. The best part of all this is that the recommendations are based on your location, so you can find the most interesting/useful spots closest to you relatively quickly – no guidebook required.

Geotagging and Photography
Not only does your mobile phone know where you are, your camera is also getting in on the act too. Tools like this Sony GPS unit let you add location data to your snapshots, providing a whole new dimension to your digital scrapbook. Perhaps you’re trying to track down that street in Austin where you took a photo of the great Mexican restaurant? Not a problem, just check out the location data embedded in your image and the next time you’re there, you can swing by for a few tacos. Even popular photo-sharing site Flickr has gotten in on the trend, allowing you to view maps of destinations with popular photos pinpointed to where they were taken. Interestingly enough, there are now even cameras on the market that have built-in GPS capabiltiies.

GPS Just for Fun
In addition to GPS-equipped phones and cameras, there are also plenty of other ways you can use GPS devices just for goofing around. Sony’s popular PlayStation Portable offers a GPS add-on, allowing you to access location data for some of your favorite games like Metal Gear Solid to unlock special bonus characters. And you’ve probably heard by now about the artwork people have been creating using GPS software. Even though the recent DHL piece proved to be a hoax, other copycats have already followed suit. Of course, no article about GPS would be complete without a mention of everyone’s favorite GPS activity, geocaching. If you want to take it step further, you might even use GPS to create a life-size game of Pac-Man for yourself. The possibilities are pretty endless.

Not only do these new location-aware devices services provide us with useful information, they promise to change the way we travel. We are no longer tied to the recommendations of guidebooks. We can call upon user-created information about places to make informed decisions about what to see and where to go. We can take a look at a tiny street in a far-away land, without ever having to step foot there. Or we can use these new services for just plain fun. As location-based devices and services become cheaper and more widespread, they can only serve to help us make more informed travel decisions in the future.