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Exploring the Compass app in the iPhone 3GS
Friday, June 26th, 2009 at 8:59 AM - by John Martellaro
The new Compass app in the iPhone 3GS is very handy. But have you wondered why it's necessary, given that the iPhone already has a GPS system? And what about that setting that shows Magnetic North or True North? Here's a quick explanation.
Compass App. Touch i to set True or Magnetic North
I am going to simplify things here to get on with the Apple related discussion, so I'm going to leave out a lot of the scientific details. But I'll give some references for those who want to know more. On with it...
The Earth has a molten iron core that rotates along with the Earth and acts like a magnet. The magnetic field of the Earth has a magnetic North Pole and South Pole. For complex reasons, these are not at the true geographic North and South Poles. Also due to the magnetization of near surface rocks, the magnetic field lines, the direction a magnetized compass aligns with, varies with position on the globe. As a result, at any given point on the planet, there is a difference angle between True North and Magnetic North. This angle is called the Magnetic Declination. The magnetic North Pole is just north of Canada and moves slightly in time. (40 km/year.)
Iso (constant) magnetic field lines for planet Earth
Given that we know our position, in latitude and longitude, it's possible to calculate this Magnetic Declination. It can vary from 0 to 30 degrees here in North America. So, knowing the direction that a magnetic compass points to, there is a calculation that tells you the offset, East or West, and the angle to correct, to obtain True Geographic North.
The National Geographic Data Center, a division of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a Web page that allows you do that calculation.
For example, for ZIP code 80120 in Denver, here's where a magnetic compass would point.
Littleton Coiorado, about 9 degrees East offset from True North
That angle computed above is what the iPhone calculates to convert from Magnetic North to True North. Some traditional, physical magnetic compasses can also dial in that adjustment because, most of the time, what we really want is True North in order to navigate on maps.
Previous compass apps on the iPhone and iPhone 3G utilized the fact that the user is in motion. If you move far enough, fast enough, the GPS coordinates can create a vector, a direction in which you are moving. That can be displayed on a pseudo-compass app. The problem is, if you don't keep moving, or don't move fast enough, it's hard to calculate the vector, and so users have been generally dissatisfied with the previous compass apps that do it all in software and utilize the motion obtained from GPS coordinates.
And now you know all about Apple's Compass app in the iPhone 3GS, how it augments the GPS system, how the app works and why it's better than the previous generation of 3rd party compass apps on the iPhone.
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