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Posted in January 2009

Copycat mime or Mousedroid?

Stories of inventors and innovators are usually celebrated and fun to come by. I personally enjoy reading about innovators. I find it thrilling to get a glimpse into their lives and personalities and how that relates to the real story behind their successful innovations. I have noticed, however, that the key word is always successful. Seldom do we read about would-be innovators, whose projects for one reason or another never pulled through, or worse, whose intentions and ideas remained in the world of imagination. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a nice world to live in, especially for a student, but we all know the benefits of bringing great ideas into the real world, whatever that may be. For ease of reference let’s call it "the market."

Well, I have one of those stories for you here. This blog entry is about an idea I came up with about a year ago. I thought it was a pretty unique idea until a friend pointed me to a web page that showed a similar innovation, already implemented and marketed! I felt a sudden excitement seeing that my idea had a real world relative, but at the same time I felt disappointment and regret for not having spent more time working on the idea. I could give several excuses for why I did not do it, but instead i’ll be honest here, I just didn’t believe strongly enough in my own idea. I’ll get back to this, but first let me tell you about my idea. I suspect it might still have some promise, and I’m currently thinking of how to change it and make it better. For this I need your help. Here’s the plan: I will first go through my idea, and then through the strong points of its potential successor, to close I will ask for your opinion, to see whether or not my idea still has any hope. 

So let’s get to it. My idea is about an application for mobile phones. Mobile phones, like some of the one’s running Google Android, include capabilities for location-based services. Recent changes in the Android SDK, available since version 0.9, added a new sensor service to control enabling/disabling the compass and accelerometer functions in supported mobile phones. Combining compass functions together with the location-based service APIs available in Android, makes new and interesting applications possible. What does this mean? It means that mobile phones can now use GPS functions to detect where in the world the phone is located, and compass and acceleration detection functions to get information about movement and direction. This opens the door for interesting applications.  

Combining location with user interaction, enables a mobile phone user to, for instance, “click” on a building to obtain information about it. But how? Well, when a user “clicks” on a building a “virtual bullet” would be fired and tracked (through software) in it’s path towards the target. Each step in this path would involve a look-up to a mapping service that answers the question: Is this a building? The process of tracking and look-up’s continues until the “virtual bullet” hits a building. When it does, the answer would be: This is a building! Then information from the mapping service would be sent back to the mobile phone, for instance in the form of a webpage. New and interesting uses could be given to such an application. For instance, user’s could click on billboards, buildings, objects or even people (granted all security and privacy concerns have been addressed). This application would be a bridge between the physical and virtual worlds, allowing users to literally surf the world (wide web). The image below shows a sketch I drew when explaining the idea to some friends over dinner at Aula.



The application I mentioned previously is already in the market, and was a finalist in the Android Developer Challenge. It is called Wikitude (see below for a 1 minute demo). It is an application for Android that uses location-based information from Wikipedia content to display real-time information about its surroundings. It does this by displaying the information on the mobile phone’s screen about the surroundings of a user who points the phone to a specific location, as if taking a photo or video. One thing I find impressive is that distance doesn’t seem to matter for this application, as the demo shown below shows, points of interest are annotated regardless of how far they are from the user. Another feature I like is how the application presents information about several sites simultaneously and in real-time, without the need for user interaction with the application. At the same time, however, this is a limitation of Wikitude. Despite the ease of use that comes from limited interaction, there are many disadvantages to leaving the user out completely. In my opinion, more relevant information, beyond an informative banner, could be presented to the user, and more importantly, could be the trigger to user interaction.

Much like we interact with the world around us, as opposed to only looking at it, an application for reality augmentation, such as the ones discussed before, should enable users to interact with both virtual and physical worlds. For instance, and this is something I just thought of, second life could be integrated to our real life. Meshing information available on the Internet with things that are out there, such as objects, people, buildings, cars, and so on, would enable a substantial augmentation of reality. Moreover, such integration could be done at different levels of reality and detail, enabling people to create their own version of reality through interaction with their personally created world(s). Comparing Wikitude to Mousedroid (the name I gave to my idea), I see differences that can guide further development and use. As I mentioned previously, I think a powerful feature would be the ability to interact with the user’s surrounding environment. Wikitude does not, as far as I know, offer this feature. Because the information is only presented to the user, without the need for interaction, the potential for manipulating the environment is limited. This is an important difference that could mean success for Mousedroid. 

So, what do you think? Does Mousedroid stand a chance? Perhaps some of this sounds like day dreaming, and partly it is, as it’s mostly brainstorming at this point. But I enjoy this part of coming up with something new, be it what it may, anything from an essay to an invention. Most importantly, the lesson I learned from this experience is to have more confidence in my own ideas, keeping in mind that successful innovations all started out once as "just an idea."

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