October 31, 2006 1:37 PM PST

Lost? Try asking your cell phone

When it comes to cell phones, U.S. consumers might as well be working with stone knives and bearskins.

The picture, though, is slowly beginning to change, said John Ellenby, CEO of GeoVector. The company, which has created software that serves up 3D maps and walking directions on phones, already sells that software to wireless carriers in Japan, and it is now negotiating with U.S. carriers. The service may launch later this year in the United States.

The software is fairly self-explanatory. Point the phone at a building, and the phone will troll the Internet and bring back information on what you're looking at. Punch in "Chinese restaurant," and it will list the nearby ones and give you walking directions.

GeoVector

"Coffee is a big one. If you put in 'coffee' it will come back with five or six coffeehouses," Ellenby said. "Pointing is simplest way we interact with the world."

Location-based services are of great interest to search companies as well as cellular providers. Google, Yahoo and AOL, for instance, see revenue in delivering advertisements to callers looking for dinner spots and dry cleaners.

Ellenby, who helped found laptop pioneer Grid Systems, came up with the idea with his sons, in part to compensate for his own weak sense of direction.

Phones that have the software installed also have GPS chips and compasses. The software has been tested in New Zealand as well as in Japan.

The mapping isn't as good in the U.S. as in Japan--elevated walkways for crossing multilane roads and other pedestrian-friendly pathways sometimes don't show up on U.S. electronic maps. But the biggest problem has been to overcome the reluctance of the carriers.

U.S. carriers are also historically cheap, Ellenby said, and they expect to keep most of the revenue culled from users adopting the new service. In Japan, carriers let the application vendors take a larger portion of the revenue. Revenue can be generated by packet use, or by ads.

"They are very sophisticated carriers that share the wealth. I can't emphasize that enough," Ellenby said.

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