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Searching the Here and Now

Two researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are making it possible for smart phone users on the Forty Acres to take a “Gander” at the digital space around them.

Thanks to a new mobile application and search engine called Gander, students, faculty and staff will be able to access instant, useful information about coffee shop traffic or school assignments that they wouldn’t otherwise get from a website.

This spring, UT ECE researcher Jonas Michel and associate professor Christine Julien are launching the myGander app, which is based on pervasive search — a type of search that lets mobile device users pull real-time information from their immediate surroundings through peer-to-peer connections instead of the Internet. The myGander Android app, which is scheduled to be released in mid-March, will be available in Google Play to the UT Austin community, with a focus on student use.

The Gander pilot program will test large-scale pervasive search in two heavily traversed locations — a coffee shop and a large study lounge, both in the Engineering Sciences Building (ENS) — that have been outfitted with special sensors to pick up data, such as noise level and the number of people waiting in line.

Students who download the myGander app “can check how long the wait time is at the coffee shop as they are racing to class, or they can find the nearest student working on the same assignment,” said Michel, principal investigator for Gander and a graduate student researcher in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “They can search for places (the cafe and study lounge), services (provided by those places) and people.”

The places and data will be accessible to all app users on campus. A search for people-related data will work best for users in physical proximity of ENS, where the researchers will provide location support.

Google Inc. is funding Gander with a $40,000 research grant, and Google staffers will provide guidance as the pilot project unfolds. In its own products, Google is already heading in the direction of providing contextual information, or unsolicited bits of data, such as weather forecasts and flight updates when it thinks you need it.

Julien and Michel hope to provide reliable and secure pervasive computing, enabling myGander users to conduct a search that uses information available on other mobile phones. They also want to show that the public has an interest in this type of search.

Pervasive computing takes location-based services to the next level by allowing for large volumes of information to be collected and exchanged instantly between mobile devices within contained areas, what Michel and Julien refer to as PNetS, Personalized Networked Spaces.

Unlike most apps that use the Internet to connect devices and search for data, Gander works by using ad-hoc networks. On wireless computer networks, ad-hoc mode allows wireless devices within range of each other to talk to directly to one another without the use of a router.

“Information collected about a space is commonly relevant ‘here and now’,” Julien said. “The idea is to use opportunistic interactions between my phone, your phone and other devices in the space, as opposed to storing all of that data. It’s motivated both by saving the storage resources, but also some recent studies on privacy.”

In a world where increasing digital connectivity is often at odds with privacy, Michel and Julien want to see to what extent mobile device users will share information with those around them. Recent surveys have concluded that people are willing to sacrifice some digital privacy in order to get relevant data, Julien said.

One challenge of pervasive search is gathering large amounts of information efficiently and quickly.

“Data on the Internet is very static