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Researchers at Microsoft are working on technology that they hope will someday enable people to browse online maps for up-to-the-minute information about local gas prices, traffic flows, restaurant wait times, and more. Eventually, says Suman Nath, a Microsoft researcher who works on the project, which is called SenseWeb, they would like to incorporate the technology into Windows Live Local (formerly Microsoft Virtual Earth), the company’s online mapping platform.

By tracking real-life conditions, which are supplied directly by people or automated sensor equipment, and correlating that data with a searchable map, people could have a better idea of the activities going on in their local areas, says Nath, and make more informed decisions about, for instance, what driving route to take.

[For images from the SenseWeb application click here.]

“The value that you get out of [real-time data mapping] is huge,” he says, and the applications can range from finding a parking spot in a cavernous parking garage to checking the traffic flow in different parts of a city.

Other research groups at the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, and MIT are working on similar projects for tracking environmental information. For instance, UCLA has a project in which sensors – devices that measure physical quantities such as temperature, pressure, and sound – are integrated with Google Earth, the company’s downloadable mapping software. In addition, companies such as Agent Logic and Corda process real-time data and can correlate it with a location, mostly for businesses and governmental organizations.

Moreover, within the past year, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have been vying with each other to generate the most useful electronic maps (see “Killer Maps”). For the most part, though, the local information offered by Web-based mapping applications is updated only infrequently. And sites that offer real-time, local updates (about the status of public transportation, for instance), while useful, are designed for a single purpose.

What makes Microsoft’s experimental project different from others that track information, Nath says, is that it would allow people to search for different types of real-time data within a user-specified area on a map, and progressively narrow that search. For instance, a person could highlight a region of a city and search for restaurants. SenseWeb would gather information provided by restaurants about their wait times and display it in various ways: the wait at specific establishments, the average wait for all restaurants in the region, or the minimum and maximum waits. If you needed to find a place to eat quickly, says Nath, but you learn that the minimum wait is 30 minutes in a certain part of town, you’d know to look in a different area. “You don’t have to take the time to look at each individual restaurant,” Nath says.

Additionally, a person could zoom into an area and see newly calculated information, such as maximum, minimum, and average wait times, according to the newly defined geography.

Searching for these types of real-time statistics within different areas on a map is a new take on displaying data on maps, says Phillip Levis, professor of computer science at Stanford University. “It’s very different to give the average wait time in the city than it is to scan around the city and see each restaurant’s wait time,” he says.

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