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MIT Technology Review

  • Hossein Rahnama


    PROBLEM: We’re forced to interact with smartphones in much the same way that we do with desktop computers—by selecting applications, typing in information, choosing from menus, hunting down snippets on websites, and clicking links. That’s okay at a desk, but it can be a huge inconvenience when you’re dealing with a tiny screen on the go.

    SOLUTION: Hossein ­Rahnama, research and innovation director of the Digital Media Zone at Toronto’s Ryerson University, decided that smartphones ought to offer us useful information where and when we need it.

    Through his startup, Flybits, Rahnama is laying the technical groundwork for a wave of mobile software that can identify and respond to contextual cues like location and time of day—and integrate them with information such as a user’s travel itinerary. It can then guess at what information would be most relevant to display, such as directions to a car-rental counter when you get off the plane after arriving at an airport.

    Others have been working on so-called context-aware computing, but Rahnama’s software platform is already being used as the basis for inexpensive, commercially practical applications that also protect privacy. Several Canadian airports and the transit systems in Toronto and Paris have used the Flybits platform to create apps that automatically serve up personalized, location-keyed guidance to travelers, and a small U.K. telecommunications company is using it to develop apps that can route calls to the appropriate number to help you avoid roaming fees (for example, it knows to send your mom’s call to your hotel landline rather than your cell if it detects that you’re overseas).

    Flybits can also make it easier to find the people most relevant to your location and interests. The company is rolling out a service called Flybits Lite that prompts users to form spontaneous social networks limited to a certain space, such as the office or a concert. So eventually, after you’ve navigated the Metro to the Louvre, perhaps you can find out who else is there to admire the Mona Lisa.

    Jessica Leber