Searching the Here and Now

Two Cockrell School of Engineering researchers are making it possible for smartphone users on the Forty Acres to take a “Gander” at the digital space around them. The myGander app launches this spring.

Two researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are making it possible for smartphone users on the Forty Acres to take a “Gander” at the digital space around them.

This spring, Cockrell School of Engineering researcher Jonas Michel and associate professor Christine Julien are launching the myGander Android app, which will let students, faculty and staff access instant, useful information about coffee shop traffic or school assignments that they wouldn't otherwise get from a website. The app, which is scheduled to be released in late March, will be available in Google Play to the UT Austin community, with a focus on student use.

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See illustration above showing how the myGander app works using sensors to pick up data.

The Gander pilot program is based on pervasive search, a type of search that lets mobile device users pull real-time information from their immediate surroundings through peer-to-peer connections instead of the Internet. The researchers plan to test their pervasive search engine and mobile app in two heavily traversed locations — a coffee shop and a large study lounge, both in the Engineering Sciences Building (ENS) — that have been outfitted with special sensors to pick up data, such as noise level and the number of people waiting in line.

Google Inc. is funding Gander with a $40,000 research grant, and Google staffers will provide guidance as the pilot project unfolds. In its own products, Google is already heading in the direction of providing contextual information, or unsolicited bits of data, such as weather forecasts and flight updates when it thinks you need it.

Students who download the myGander app “can check how long the wait time is at the coffee shop as they are racing to class, or they can find the nearest student working on the same assignment,” said Michel, principal investigator for Gander and a graduate student researcher in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “They can search for places (the cafe and study lounge), services (provided by those places) and people.”

The places and data will be accessible to all app users on campus. A search for people-related data will work best for users in physical proximity of ENS, where the researchers will provide location support.

Julien and Michel hope to provide reliable and secure pervasive computing, enabling myGander users to conduct a search that uses information available on other mobile phones. They also want to show that the public has an interest in this type of search.

“Information collected about a space is commonly relevant ‘here and now’,” Julien said. “The idea is to use opportunistic interactions between my phone, your phone and other devices in the space, as opposed to storing all of that data."

How does it work?

Unlike most apps that use the Internet to connect devices and search for data, Gander works by using ad-hoc networks. On wireless computer networks, ad-hoc mode allows wireless devices within range of each other to talk to directly to one another without the use of a router.

Pervasive computing takes location-based services to the next level by allowing for large volumes of information to be collected and exchanged instantly between mobile devices within contained areas, what Michel and Julien refer to as PNetS, Personalized Networked Spaces (see illustration).

At its core, Gander is "motivated both by saving the storage resources, but also some recent studies on privacy,” Julien said

In a world where increasing digital connectivity is often at odds with privacy, Michel and Julien want to see to what extent mobile device users will share information with those around them. Recent surveys have concluded that people are willing to sacrifice some digital privacy in order to get relevant data, Julien said.

One challenge of pervasive search is gathering large amounts of information efficiently and quickly.

“Data on the Internet is very static; web pages don’t change very frequently, where our everyday environment changes very rapidly as we move around and real things happen,” Julien said. “It becomes very difficult or even impossible to store it in one location and also find it in time so that it is still relevant and meaningful to people searching for it.”

To gather data, Michel will build a flooring system in the coffee shop embedded with sensors that is able to accurately measure the number of people standing in line. At both locations, he will install video heat sensors, automatic people counters and sound sensors.

The app will show noise level, available seats, queue length (line wait time) and amenities, depending on the location. It will also give a snapshot of nearby app users by academic year, course and student organization, for those who have entered that information.

Beyond the data initially defined by the app, Michel plans to eventually allow students to input their own information, such as a personal course schedule, student group activities or a study group flyer. Over the long-term, Michel wants Gander to expand across campus, and he hopes it will be used as a testing ground for similar pervasive search experiments.

Julien and Michel believe Gander could be useful in crowded spaces or events where cell phone congestion affects service, such as an amusement park, parade or music festival.

A friend “might be a hundred meters away and it should be reasonable for me to hand off a message without using the cell towers. How do we use these local connections that are available?” Julien said.

Ultimately, this project could influence how people build and use these types of search engines in the future.

“If we can demonstrate that pervasive search supported by peer-to-peer interactions is useful, that might be impetus to focus further attention on challenges of data storage and privacy in pervasive computing environments,” Julien said. “It’s a bit of a leap of faith because until you have a system to deploy and test, you can’t be sure what people will want to use and how they will use it.