What is smartwatch GPS?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System, and it’s a way of finding your location (or position) anywhere in the world through the use of satellites. Some smartwatches have built-in GPS systems, however, a T1 Tact Watch GPS is not required to keep track of fitness or exercise routines. The reason for this is that some devices, such as the T1 Tact Watch uses a high-quality pedometer and accelerometer to track step count and distance travelled by foot.
Still, it’s important to understand exactly what GPS is, its origins, and how it’s used today to get a better understanding of its use in a smartwatch. A T1 Tact Watch GPS system is redundant in this case, since it already has a built-in pedometer and tracking system. We’ll start by explaining how GPS works and give some insight into how it developed over the years.
Different Ways to Read Distance and Elevation
Another tool smartwatches use to determine your position is barometric altimeters. These record the pressure changes at different points of your workout and give you accurate information on elevation changes. Note that this is done without the use of watch GPS. Product Manager Joe Heikes explains it this way:
“We’re putting a barometer in more and more of our wearable products because it enables the ‘floors climbed’ feature...However, I think customers should understand that, for the vast majority of runners, there is very little benefit to this measurement,” Heikes said.
“A quick mathematical check shows that a 10-percent grade over one mile creates only an additional eight meters of distance as compared to one mile over a flat. While a 10-percent grade may not sound like much, that would be because one has not actually tried to run a mile up a 10-percent grade!”
As a result, you don’t need 3D readings, that is, readings that take into account both your distance and elevation. Again, tactical watch GPS isn’t necessary, and simple 2D readings are sufficient, as Heikes explains:
“In most products, we do not take elevation changes into account in the distance calculations. Except in rare cases, it really doesn’t matter.”
How a Smartwatch with GPS Can Show Different Distances
With so many smartwatches on the market, many users are finding that their distances vary with their friends’ when they go on long runs together. The reason for this is that GPS readings work differently on different devices. This includes receiving, registering, and filtering GPS signals. Remember that you’re relying on several satellites orbiting thousands of miles above you, so there’s bound to be differences.
Interference Can Cause Problems with GPSPrecisely because of this triangulation, which we’ll explain in detail below, your GPS relies on receiving a radio signal from far away. When things get in the way of this signal, it can distort it or make it lag, giving you inaccurate results. This is called ‘multi-path’, and if you’re in a city, this means that skyscrapers and billboard, and even airplanes, can distort your signal. Additionally, if you go for a run in the forest, tall trees can also cause interference. Head of Marketing Solutions & Services, Simon Loe commented on how strong signals can be and how interference disrupts them:
“For users on land or sea, a GPS signal is about as strong as a light bulb would be to your eye when it’s a few miles away,” he said. “However, seeing more satellites makes it easier to establish a more accurate position.”
“In deciduous forests, as leaves fall in winter, a watch may record a different path from the same route taken in summer,” Heikes added. Obstacles “also create other problems such as when the signal bounces off a building before it reaches the watch, in which case the GPS receiver in the watch will think it is farther from the satellites than it really is.”
Smartwatch GPS History
Watch GPS systems work based on the time it takes for a satellite to send a radio signal to your watch. This is known as triangulation, where your device solves equations based on the positions of different satellites, calculating their position and the time it took to receive their signals to determine where you are positioned.
This is possible mainly because the radio signals submitted by a satellite to a smartwatch with GPS is constant, so you can accurately determine where you are.
According to Product Marketing Manager Tom Lund:
“Triangulation is a way to determine the difference between the time that your running watch receives a GPS signal and the time that GPS signal was sent to your running watch. The difference between sending and receiving a GPS signal determines how far away the satellite is,” Lund said.
“By integrating GPS technology in a fitness or sports watch, the watch measures a series of points that are used to accurately derive metrics like distance, speed, and pace. These metrics give runners real-time insight into their running performance,” he added.
Important Developments in GPS History
- 1957 – The Soviet Union launches their Sputnik I satellite into orbit.
- 1959 – As a response, the U.S. Navy creates a Transit system of satellites to track locations of submarines.
- 1963 – A widespread study of all military satellite technology by the Aerospace Corporation creates the basis for our modern GPS system.
1970 – 1989:
- 1974 – The United States launches into orbit the first NAVSTAR test satellite
- 1978 – The U.S. begins their Block I GPS Program, launching another 11 test satellites into orbit.
- 1983 – The U.S. announces that GPS technology will be available to the general public to make air traffic safer after Korean Air Lines Flight 007 crashes.
- 1985 – The U.S. awards contracts to private companies for the creation of smaller, portable GPS receivers for civilian use.
- 1989 – Magellan, a GPS company, releases the NAV 1000, the first hand-held GPS device. Also, The U.S. Air Force launches a completely operational satellite into orbit as part of a new program called Block II.
1990 – 1999:
- 1990 – Selective Availability begins– this is when the U.S. Department of Defense lowers the accuracy of GPS readings for non-military use. The reason being that they didn’t want other world powers to gain tactical advantages from their satellites.
- 1991 – While GPS wasn’t fully operational, it played a decisive role in U.S. operations in the Gulf War.
- 1995 – With 24 fully functional satellites in orbit (known as the GPS constellation), the U.S. military officially declares Full Operational Capability (FOC), meaning they completed their mission in regards to GPS satellites.
- 1998 – Al Gore, then U.S. Vice President, announces that all GPS III satellites will send additional signals after being used selectively for military purposes: one for civilian use, and one for aircraft use.
- 1999 – Benefon, a mobile phone company, releases the first GPS phone.
- 2000 – The U.S. government officially ends ‘Selective Availability’, which opens up full GPS capability for civilian use, ushering in more innovation and creativity with GPS.
- 2004 – Qualcomm, an electronics company based in the U.S., runs a test of live assisted GPS on a cell phone, using both mobile signals and GPS signals to increase accuracy.
- 2005 – A signal dedicated to civilian GPS use is accessible through the Block IIR satellites.
- 2010 – The U.S. launches what would be the first of Block IIR satellites. This created a dedicated GPS channel specifically for civilian use.
- 2016 – U.S. launches last Block IIR satellite, signaling the completion of their Block II program which lasted from 1989 - 2016.
- 2018 – The first GPS III satellite makes it into orbit, launched by the U.S. Air Force.
- 2019 – Second GPS III satellite lands in space, this time launched by a private U.S. company. SpaceX, with its Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral.
- 2020 – Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, the newly created U.S. Space Force halts the launch of the GPS III-3 satellite by SpaceX.
Problems Getting Signal
When you use your GPS device for the first time, it might take longer to receive the signal and display results. This is because your watch needs to identify the satellites around you, and this may take longer the first couple of times. However, once you’ve already tracked your distance in a certain area, the next time you use GPS will probably be faster.
One industry expert describes how this might work:
“The speed of getting your first fix is dependent on how well the device knows the current satellite constellation around you… Many devices also use satellite orbit predictions. This prediction data is valid for a short time and can be refreshed using a data connection to the device.”
Essentially what this means is that the more you sync your GPS to your smartphone, the faster and more accurate the results will be.