Katherine Boehret

Mapping Your Digital Photo World

After spending summer vacation shooting the sights, many people face the same chore: labeling and organizing digital photos before forgetting what they are and where they were taken.

Now there’s a way to upload photos that are already labeled with their exact latitude and longitude using geotagging, the fancy name for labeling data with information on its geographic origin. Photos with “geotags” have coordinates embedded invisibly in them. Some programs or online photo services use these tags to generate maps showing just where each photo was taken, or to label or organize the images. Not long ago, this capability was mostly done through manual labeling or with costly equipment.

The $129 Eye-Fi Explore Card from Eye-Fi Inc. gives people the ability to wirelessly send geotagged photos from a digital camera.

This week, I tested the $129 Eye-Fi Explore Card (EyeFi.com), a special two-gigabyte memory card from Eye-Fi Inc. that adds a photo geotagging feature to Eye-Fi’s original functionality: the automatic wireless uploading of photos, straight from a digital camera to a home computer or photo-sharing service. If all goes well, users can capture and upload what are essentially geographically prelabeled batches of digital photos — with minimal effort and time.

But after days of testing, I found myself more frustrated as I used this wireless memory card in various places and situations, and found the tagging to be unreliable in one scenario. (Eye-Fi Inc. said my experiences weren’t typical.) At home in Washington, D.C., and while on a business trip to California, I tried it using a two-year-old Kodak digital camera and two different Vista laptops, though it also works on Macs.

Eye-Fi introduced the Explore Card as a follow-up to the company’s original wireless memory card, which it introduced last fall. Once set up, the first Eye-Fi card initiated the transferring of photos to a computer or Web site whenever the digital camera was turned on and as long as it was near a pre-associated wireless network.

Through a partnership with Skyhook Wireless, the Explore card can automatically label photos with their latitude and longitude using data from the Skyhook’s Wi-Fi positioning system. As long as a photo is captured within the Skyhook coverage area, which the company says covers 70% of North America, and the geotagging is enabled, each photo will be coded with data identifying where it was captured.


The Explore Card turned otherwise normal photo-sharing sites into mini maps showing where I had traveled while on a business trip in Silicon Valley. I set my account up to work with Flickr, Kodak Gallery, Snapfish, Shutterfly and Picasa Web Albums, though only one will work at a time. Flickr, Picasa Web Albums and Smugmug make use of geotagged photos by tagging shots with their location data, such as “Downtown Palo Alto, California.” I used Flickr and Picasa Web Albums to instantaneously generate a map showing where I was when I took photos.

On Flickr, each image was represented by a pink dot associated with one of several photos displayed in a horizontal bar below the map. This map can be searched for specific tags (photo labels) or locations and can be narrowed to show images from everyone who uses Flickr, just your own photostream, or only photos from friends or contacts. My searches returned results in seconds, finding shots that were geotagged with “Palo Alto” and tagged by me as containing flowers. I enjoyed looking at other Flickr users’ photos when I searched everyone’s images, specifically in cities where I recognized landmarks.

Picasa Web Albums showed each geotagged image on a map by placing tiny versions of each photo on the map. In certain cases, when I had multiple photos taken at the same spot, photos appeared with lines drawn from them to a spot, much like spokes of a wheel. I also looked at my Picasa photos on maps in Google Earth; a quick link to the program is conveniently found at the top of the Picasa Web Albums screen.

Another key feature of the Explore Card is its hotspot connectivity. The card is capable of working in any Wayport location, which includes McDonald’s (MCD) restaurants and certain airports and hotels. Though using Wayport locations normally requires sign-ins and/or payment via a computer screen, the Explore Card works as soon as the camera is turned on in these locations. This service is free for the first year, but after that, it costs $19 annually to continue.

Finally, the Explore Card notifies users via SMS or email messages when photos have either started or finished uploading; or if these uploads are interrupted, which happened to me a few times. This is useful in Wayport wireless zones, where the camera has no real way of signaling when an upload is finished or when a computer isn’t handy.

In a hotel with a flaky Wi-Fi network, the Explore Card was crippled, though I blame the hotel for this inconvenience. But even when I traveled to a local McDonald’s, where Eye-Fi’s maker has a deal for free Wi-Fi for its cards, the Eye-Fi stuttered and couldn’t consistently upload photos. When I plugged the card directly into my laptops, the results weren’t much better.

If you aren’t within Wi-Fi range while taking a photo, it won’t be geotagged. I ran into this issue in one instance: On California’s highway 101, I took a handful of photos, but when I checked my Eye-Fi account later, none of these photos was automatically geotagged.

Some people worry about privacy settings when it comes to uploading geotagged photos directly to a sharing Web site. Settings within the Eye-Fi Manager make it easy to adjust permissions to determine who can see your photos within each of about 25 sharing sites.

Users can opt to share photos only to a home computer through their own Wi-Fi network, and a special card is designed for just that: the $79 Eye-Fi Home. This is meant to serve as a shortcut for transfers.

The original Eye-Fi, which costs $99, was a useful tool as a wireless memory card, but I didn’t have as much luck with the more expensive Eye-Fi Explore. Still, when it did work, I found geotagging to be a great way of automatically labeling and organizing my photos. Instead of just being neatly stored in a folder on your computer, geotagged images are given a spark of life and relevancy when plotted out on a map.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email: mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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