Communications

Your Phone as a Virtual Tour Guide

New software lets people build their own GPS-enabled games and tours for portable devices.

More and more mobile phones and PDAs have built-in sensors that can detect position, light, and motion. Now researchers at Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) Bristol, UK, lab are writing software that lets people have a little fun with these sensors.

On the hunt: Researchers at HP Labs, in Bristol, UK, have developed software that lets people play GPS-based games and take virtually guided tours on their PDAs or mobile phones. A game could include a scavenger hunt for insects or animals in a park, as shown above.

Last week, HP Labs launched a site that offers location-based games and city walking tours. The site also offers a tool called a wizard for modifying some of the existing games and tours, and a downloadable software-writing tool kit for more-advanced users who want to create applications from scratch.

“We think this will be a new genre and a new medium of experience,” says Phil Stenton, research manager for the project, known as mscapes.

The HP project combines physical data with virtual information, a concept that’s known as augmented reality. As location-based technologies have improved and PDAs have become more powerful, various forms of augmented reality have been gaining traction. Nokia is working on a project, for instance, that will help people navigate new areas. The user simply points a cell-phone camera at a restaurant or office building, and, using GPS coordinates, software associates a hyperlink with the image. (See “Hyperlinking Reality via Phones.”) In the commercial world, some museums and tour companies–including one that takes people around San Francisco–use location-detecting gadgets to guide sightseers.

HP has been developing its own applications for about five years and recently decided to let others “have a go” at the software, says Stenton. What makes mscapes novel, he says, is that it is giving a large community of people access to the research software and allowing them to create, modify, and share their work with other people.

A simple example of an mscape, says Stenton, would be a guided city walk for out-of-town guests. It would be useful when a friend arrives in town but you have to work, he says. You could create a city tour from the website, download it to your PDA, and hand your friend the gadget so that he can explore on his own. Text, video, or pictures could pop up on the PDA screen as the friend reaches a point of interest. For instance, as your friend passes a local taqueria, the GPS position would trigger a picture of you and your friends eating there, a note about how great the vegetarian burrito is, and instructions for where to walk next. As your friend reaches the next destination, such as a park, concert video from that venue could pop up on the screen. Or you could create an audio-only tour featuring stories that you record, as well as walking directions.

The software only runs on phones with Windows Mobile 5.0 (or later versions) and is limited to the resolution of the GPS sensor, notes Stenton. Right now, he says, he finds that many of the gadgets available operate consistently within about a 10-meter radius. So, he says, a person must keep this limitation in mind when developing her mscape application.

HP is making an important contribution to this field of research, says Cliff Randall, professor of computer science at the University of Bristol, who is familiar with mscapes and the researchers but unaffiliated with their project. “They demonstrate real progress towards the visions of the early pioneers in the field,” he says. “The progress may be slow, but the ability of the general public to be able to readily associate digital media with particular locations is a real milestone.”

Some researchers are not completely impressed with the initial offering, however. Blair MacIntyre, professor of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has developed similar software for local tours, and he says that the HP work is not giving a truly immersive augmented-reality feel. But, he adds, mscapes “will be useful to folks who want to do this sort of thing, especially those who aren’t programmers.” MacIntyre says that there aren’t a lot of ways for average people to create these sensor-based applications, especially on mobile devices, and HP is filling that need.

Stenton admits that there are some limitations to the integration of sensor data and mscapes. So far, the downloads and tool kits only work with GPS sensors. But he says that future versions could include software that can use Bluetooth wireless, infrared sensor data, information from in-phone accelerometers, and maybe even heart-rate monitors. He fully expects that future generations of mscapes will allow, for example, people to turn their exercise routines into games and share them with friends, forming the basis for new collaborative workouts and competitions.

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