Eagle can see a number of possible applications for the technology. “It’s a cool idea, and frankly, it’s worth broadcasting that this protocol exists,” he says. “If you are able to send a bitmapped image to low-end handsets, there are a lot of things you can do.”
Other applications could include sending bar-code identifiers as a banking security measure, say the Microsoft and Toronto researchers. But they are focusing initially on the crowdsourcing idea, which they call mClerk. In a five-week pilot test, the researchers had phone owners digitize handwritten words in the local language, Kannada, in a region four hours from Bangalore.
Within five weeks, 239 users had completed 64,000 tasks, for a total of 25,000 digitized words in a handwritten document that had been chopped into thousands of images of individual words.
The researchers paid participants with phone minutes, not cash, and estimate that this form of payment for a person working just two hours a day every day could equate to about $21 a month—12 percent of the average monthly wage in the region. Gupta says the concept could extend to all sorts of handwritten things, like information on medical forms—perhaps allowing for the distributed digitization of medical records.
The researchers have no immediate plans for commercialization or licensing the technology, although they will develop it further over the summer.
Eagle cautions that crowdsourced transcription may not end up being the killer app for displaying images on text messages. But he says one could envision developers writing simple games or educational tasks, or even sharing simple images as part of text-message-based social networks. “It’s great to see more people starting to think about other uses for these low-end handsets beyond standard phone calls and text messages,” he says.