"Jumping" into the matrix from your cell phone? Believe it.
Imagine walking down a street in a city you've never visited before. You're hungry and you're looking for something in particular. You dig your cell phone or PDA from your pocket and access the data surrounding your immediate region. User-entered notes and reviews about the local eateries queue themselves on your screen, maps generated by localized WiFi and GPS data wait to be displayed along with traffic reports for your vicinity to expedite your travel time.
Is this something out of a sci-fi video game or movie? Not quite â€“ Duke University engineers led by Rommit Roy Choudhury, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering have already put an experimental system in place.
Though interactive, virtual, real-time data systems are mostly seen in the realm of science fiction in TV shows and movies, they are no doubt going to be a reality in the near future. The ability of users to generate their own data on the internet is growing at an incredible pace and the next logical step is to link this data generation ability to mobile devices so data can be created anywhere, any time.
Roy Choudhury's system is presently based on cell phones. â€œWe can now think of mobile phones as a â€˜virtual lensâ€™ capable of focusing on the context surrounding it,â€ he explained. â€œBy combining the lenses from all the active phones in the world today, it may be feasible to build an internet-based â€˜virtual information telescopeâ€™ that enables a high-resolution view of the world in real time.â€
Cell phones and their ilk are becoming more and more like portable computers. State of the art phones pack cameras, keyboards, WiFi, accelerometers, GPS and more. All of these tools working together can provide a fairly accurate picture of a user's surroundings. Things like local weather conditions and traffic congestion can be measured passively and relayed in real time to information networks. And that's just the passive input. Combined with the user input capabilities current and future mobile devices will have, actively generated content could generate terabytes or more data in a single day.
A user, for example, eats at a new bistro on the corner of Street X and Avenue 2. It may not be the best he's tasted, but it's above average. While waiting for the bill, he opens his cell phone and logs onto the virtual space he and the bistro occupy (this space would be generated by a combination of GPS and WiFi data) and leaves a note which contains his opinions of the food, service, dÃ©cor, and whatever else he desires. The note is pinned to the virtual space and can now be accessed by any other user that enters the local area. The note could be saved by his phone, but it doesn't need to be because it's contained in the network for the area.
A user could also access the data for a specific area from his computer or mobile device without having to be there. This could help him plan daily events, vacation destinations or just a trip to the store. Accessing user deposited data allows him to see what other users have seen, in the past or in the present.
The applications for this kind of real time interaction and data gathering are practically limitless. Tapping into passively generated data from cell phones on a congested interstate rather than flying traffic helicopters around could save large amounts of money, as well as monitor entire highway networks in real time. Ground based emergency and rescue services could utilize the same data for route planning to get to an accident scene more quickly.
The system itself has been dubbed micro-blog. â€œMicro-blogs will provide unprecedented levels and amounts of information literally at your fingertips no matter where you are, through your mobile phone. We have already deployed a prototype, and while some challenges remain to be addressed, the feedback weâ€™ve received so far indicates that micro-blog represents a promising new model for mobile social communication,â€ said Roy Choudhury.
The prototype system currently only works with the popular Nokia N95 mobile device. The application can be written for any type of programmable mobile phone, Roy Choudhury stressed. He also expects to see other numerous and unforeseen applications for the system in the next five years.
A few of the challenges that do remain to bring this incredible system to life are the limited battery life of mobiles and the social aspect of the system itself. While cell batteries typically last days or more at rest, actively using the device, especially in applications like GPS, drains them quickly. One way to alleviate the drain from the positioning elemental of the system is to use local WiFi links in conjunction with GPS information to triangulate position. WiFi typically uses less power than GPS systems when active and the combination should help batteries last longer.
The social aspect of the system could hinder its abilities as easily as enhance them. While social applications like Wikipedia and Facebook are extremely popular, users will still worry about personal data security â€“ especially when connected to a network that millions, possibly billions of other people are connected to. To address this, Roy Choudhury says that the system could use systems much like Facebook's, which could tag data private or public. While this probably won't quell the Big Brother conspiracy advocates fearing that unknown organizations could use the location information gathered and utilized by the system to track them, other social networks like Facebook have no problem generating usage and members, so a similar system would probably set most users' minds at ease.
Systems like the micro-blog will soon begin launching in earnest. It will not be long before The World of Tomorrow is here. With the advances in fuel cell technology, mobile communication technology, network technology and countless others, virtual, interactive real time systems will soon be more than a glimmer of imagination in a science fiction author's eye.