Microsoft's Plan to Map the World in Real Time

Researchers are working on a system that allows sensors to track information and create up-to-date, searchable online maps.

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.

A screenshot of the SenseWeb sensor mapping application. The user highlighted a geographic region (red lines and dots) and typed “Seattle Sensors” to view a variety of real-time data in the area. (Image courtesy of Suman Nath, Microsoft Research.)

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.

SenseWeb is composed of three basic parts: sensors (or data-collecting units), Microsoft’s database indexing scheme that sorts through the information, and the online map that lets users interact with the data. The sensors used in the project can vary in form and function, and can include thermometers, light sensors, cameras, and restaurant computers. SenseWeb puts baseline sensor information, such as location and function, into a database that’s searchable by location and type of sensor information.

Then, if someone wants to check traffic conditions along a stretch of highway, for instance, the database will direct queries to cameras (“Web cams”) located along the route – and an image of traffic shows up on the map.

In order for people with sensors – from researchers at universities to a private citizen with a Web cam – to participate in SenseWeb, Nath says, they would have to be able to upload data to the Internet and provide information to the Microsoft group about their sensor, such as latitude, longitude, and the type of data it provides (for example, gas prices, temperature, or video).

One challenge for the SenseWeb project will be making the different types of information pulled into its database consistent enough to analyze and sort, says Samuel Madden, professor of computer science at MIT. For instance, there would need to be standard units for temperatures. “As soon as you start integrating all this data, you can imagine that weird things will happen,” he says. “It’s really a challenge to build tools that work with generic data and to come up with a way that anyone can publish their information.”

Another, more fundamental hurdle for the SenseWeb project, Nath says, is getting people to register their sensors and sign on to the free program. Gas stations or restaurants may not even know about the project, or may not have an efficient way to pass along their data.

Therefore, in coming months, the Microsoft group will extend SenseWeb to universities that have already deployed sensors for other projects. In addition, the team is talking to a company that has sensors on parking spots, which, if integrated into Live Local, could help people find available parking more easily, he says.

For now, though, SenseWeb and Live Local are separate projects, according to Nath. The Live Local team “really loves this technology,” he says, but right now “what’s missing is the actual data.”

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