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Websign: Putting e-Services on Main Street

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You're late for a meeting downtown and need to park as quickly as possible.

You could drive in circles as the minutes tick by. Or you rely on HP Labs' trusty websign technology to find the closest parking lot, check price and availability and reserve a spot instantly.

Creating virtual-physical linkages

Websigns are a new way of linking users from physical locations to online resources and services. Using a handheld computer, cellular phone or other device, users can get information on the Web related to physical structures and objects in the immediate vicinity -- the time of the next train, the location of the nearest police station, a restaurant's menu or even a message left by someone who recently visited that location.

"What we're trying to do is untether you from the PC and connect you to e-services in your physical environment," says researcher Salil Pradhan.

Pradhan and the core research team -- Cyril Brignone, Alan McReynolds, and Mark Smith -- built a working prototype of a handheld computer with websign technology installed. The device incorporates a global positioning system (GPS), a wireless network and a magnetic compass, all inside an HP Jornada shell.

Scanning for e-services

Websigns are similar to beacons, another technology developed in HP Labs' CoolTown research project to bridge the physical and online worlds. Beacons wirelessly broadcast URLs to a mobile device. But beacons are physical boxes with an access range of about one meter -- practical in a small environment, but not on a large scale.

By contrast, websigns are virtual, so they can be activated outdoors to scan e-services in a wide geographical area by simply aiming a handheld in the general direction you want.

illustration of detecting websigns with a handheld computer

You could use websign to find the cheapest gasoline within a specific geographic range or the route home with the least traffic. Real estate agents could put websigns on homes for sale that allow prospective buyers in the area to view virtual tours of the homes. Retailers could use them to advertise sales or new arrivals.

Developing websign technology

Devices gather websigns in one of two ways: by downloading them from the Web, or by having them automatically contact your mobile device as you pass the location from which they are broadcast. (To avoid being inundated with websigns as you stroll along the street, you'll be able to pre-program your device to accept only the type of websigns that interest you and ignore those that don't.) Users might subscribe to certain e-services depending on their location and needs.

illustration of websign display transition

illustration of websign display transition

Making CoolTown and its websigns ubiquitous is technically possible. Two elements are needed: some modification to current hardware and an infrastructure of websigns created and posted by all types of business, organizations and services.

To promote the infrastructure development, HP recently announced Coolbase, a software development platform for creating mobile e-services. The idea is that anyone interested in offering services over the Web to mobile customers will create websigns that allow it to happen.

Quote: 'We're handing you a looking glass for e-services,' says Pradhan. 'When you look through it, you don't see what buildings are around.  You see the e-services the businesses there supply'

Key technical problems

To create websign technology, the researchers had to develop the algorithms to solve several key technical problems:

  • managing the flow of content binding the virtual to the physical
  • managing the creation, distribution and filtering of content to ensure that users can access and receive the websigns they want
  • managing for inaccuracies in the positioning technology
  • preserving the appearance of distance to make the virtual-physical interaction as natural as possible.

The team designed websign software to work with most current platforms for handheld computers and cellular telephones. It could be implemented in any language, including Java. (The HP Labs version is in C++.)

Still missing, however, are devices equipped with GPS and compass-type technology. GPS receivers have already begun to show up in mobile phones. Magnetometers (which would supply the compass component) are relatively inexpensive, so eventually it would be possible to integrate them into mobile devices.

Next steps

"We're handing you a looking glass for e-services," says Pradhan. "When you look through it, you don't see what buildings are around. You see the e-services the businesses there supply."

What's next? Fred Kitson, director of HP's Client and Media Systems Lab, says researchers are looking at integrating imaging technology with websign. They also hope to develop peer-based models for creating and distributing content. This way, users could pick up websigns for nearby objects from other devices in the vicinity.

by Joan Tharp

for more information


» Interview with Salil Pradhan
(websign researcher)
» Websigns: Hyperlinking physical locations to the Web
(from IEEE Computer, Aug. 2001)
» Creating virtual-physical linkages
» Mobile and Media Systems Lab
» Archives
Photo of the websign team
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