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Indian American turns mobiles into virtual lens

June 23, 2008 10:55 IST

A new software system, which enables mobile phone users to obtain location-specific, real-time information, either actively or passively, from other users across the world has been developed by a team led by an Indian-American professor at Duke University.

The rapid convergence of social networks, mobile phones and global positioning technology has given Duke University engineers the ability to create something they call 'virtual sticky notes', site-specific messages that people can leave for others to pick up on their mobile phones.

"Every mobile phone can act as a telescope lens providing real-time information about its environment to any of the 3 billion mobile phones worldwide," said Romit Roy Choudhury, an assistant professor at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.

It will be as if every participating mobile phone works together allowing each individual access to information throughout the virtual network.

Interested in trying that new Indian restaurant? Tap into the virtual sticky notes floating in the ether within the restaurant and find what other network users thought of it. Heading to the airport and need to know where the traffic jams are? Sensors in the phones detect movement and can relay back to the network where traffic is the heaviest.

The potential of this new application, which has been dubbed micro-blog, is practically limitless.

"We can now think of mobile phones as a 'virtual lens' capable of focusing on the context surrounding it. By combining the lenses from all the active phones in the world today, it may be feasible to build an internet-based 'virtual information telescope' that enables a high-resolution view of the world in real time," Roy Choudhury said.

The application combines the capabilities of distributed networks (like Wikipedia), social networks (Facebook), mobile phones, computer networks and geographic positioning capabilities, such as GPS or WiFi.

"Micro-blogs will provide unprecedented levels and amounts of information literally at your fingertips no matter where you are, through your mobile phone," Roy Choudhury said.

"We have already deployed a prototype, and while some challenges remain to be addressed, the feedback we have received so far indicates that micro-blog represents a promising new model for mobile social communication."

In simple terms, people who use the micro-blog application will enter information - photos, comments, videos -- into their mobile phone, where it will be 'tagged' by the user's location.

Passive information, such as location or speed, can also be recorded. All this information is then sent to a central server, where it is available to all participants.

"So if you're planning a trip to the beach or a restaurant, you can query the micro-blog and get information or see images from people who have been or are currently there," Roy Choudhury said.

"Say you are in a museum. As you pass a particular painting, your phone could download comments from art experts providing relevant information about that painting," he said.

The current prototype works with the Nokia N95 mobile phone, but Roy Choudhury said the application will eventually be written for any kind of programmable mobile phone.

Finally, location privacy needs to be addressed. Since mobile phones are transmitting data - including location -- back to a central server, users must trust the administrator to keep this information private.

Roy Choudhury believes that these issues can be addressed by assigning different modes -- private, social or public -- much like social networks already do.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and Verizon, Inc.
Dharam Shourie
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