ORONO, Maine — Chris Frank has taken an old version of his iPointer technology all over the country and to parts of Asia.
A new, improved iPointer will have its debut this week as Frank, the CEO and founder of Orono-based Intelligent Spatial Technologies Inc., will show off his interactive mobile technology device at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.
The Spanish conference is actually a relaunch for the company, Frank said last week in his office at the Target Technology Center.
“We kind of put our head in the sand for a couple of years, and we’re now starting coming out, relaunching our product with a whole new methodology, a whole new technology, a whole new group of intellectual properties and whole new set of partners,” he said. “This is a beginning.”
Intelligent Spatial Technologies won’t have a booth in Barcelona, but Frank intends to meet with partners and vendors who have been giving the company map data. The goal will be to show off what the company has done with the information.
The iPointer is a mobile search and content delivery system that works on any mobile communication device with a GPS, a digital compass and a wireless data connection. Some phones with those features are available on the market now, and more will be released in the next year or so.
The technology works like this: When a user points his device with iPointer at any landmark and clicks a button, the device sends the building’s coordinates over a data network to a Web-based search engine. The algorithms developed by the company figure out the most likely landmark at which the user is pointing, and information about the location is sent back to the user’s mobile device.
Users can get restaurant menus and reviews, a coupon for a store, or information about a historical site — as long as the site has information on the Internet. The information comes from partners such as tourism content companies and cable networks that focus on travel content.
The system is free for wireless carriers and the end user, but the company that is advertising on something like yellowpages.com will pay a small amount per click. An example would be if a user points to a restaurant and the information the user receives includes a listing of specials the restaurant might put into a phone book, the restaurant would pay for the click.
“When you have a million users per month pointing at a couple of things, and we’re earning a nickel or quarter per click, it adds up quickly,” Frank said. “So our business model will grow. What’s great is the wireless carrier isn’t paying for it. The end user isn’t paying for it. The money comes from an ad engine.”
The technology exists for 78 North American cities and 59 European cities. In Barcelona alone there are 90,000 buildings that can register on the iPointer. Maine cities, for the most part, aren’t good candidates for the 3-D system because the technology works best in cities with tightly packed buildings.
Frank has been working on the iPointer for about six years, but has made big changes since he traveled on an October 2007 gubernatorial trade mission to South Korea and Japan. The iPointer was redesigned from the ground up, utilizing more current three-dimensional data of cities.
In its previous two-dimension version, the iPointer couldn’t register over buildings. The current version allows that. For example, if you’re standing in front of a short building that is located in front of a tall building, you can point and click on the taller building.
“As the data becomes more accurate, we’re able to point to different floors in a building,” Frank said. “So our system has become a lot more robust and accurate going to three-dimensional.”
Frank and his company have signed a nondisclosure agreement with one of the biggest wireless companies in the country and also have agreements with data providers.
It hasn’t been an easy road, though, especially with the ongoing bank crisis. Frank said he has spent most of his time the last two to three years trying to raise venture capital without much luck. Intelligent Spatial Technologies, however, could be acquired in the next year by a Chinese-owned, Massachusetts-based semiconductor company which builds the digital compasses that go into phones.
“These guys want us to succeed, because if we succeed we drive demand and they’re the ones who sell [the compasses],” Frank said. “So it’s kind of a strategic investment for them.”
Frank stipulated that his company, which would be a wholly owned subsidiary with 25-30 employees, be based in Maine with a research division in Orono and development in the Portland area.
“Besides the fact that I have connections here, we’re an innovation engine,” said Frank, who has a wife and son in Orono. “We’re constantly going over to the university to test our ideas and interact with the faculty in the spatial engineering department.”
Why else stay in Maine? It’s also a matter of pride.
“People in Maine thought I couldn’t do it,” Frank said. “They thought, how could I be doing something innovative and competitive on a global scale if I’m in Orono, Maine? If they don’t believe in themselves, then they’re surely not going to believe in me and support me. We have a top-notch university, top-notch researchers and yes, we can bring companies to market that have hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. It’s the I-told-you-so concept.”
After the Mobil World Congress, Frank’s next stop will be Las Vegas for CTIA, the largest wireless trade show in North America.
“We’ll do things on a larger scale with more content integrated on the system, and we’ll be in a few booths,” Frank said. “We’re really just sort of building momentum.”