So Close...Yet Not that Far

By Gerry Blackwell

November 06, 2003

A project at University of Texas at Dallas points the way toward location-based Wi-Fi navigation aids of the future.

WLAN operators are starting to look for ways to leverage their investments in Wi-Fi by adding new services beyond simple network access -- and if they're not, they probably should be.

Location-based services look like a good bet, especially given the growing market penetration of Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices. WLANs in complex environments such as college and corporate campuses and convention facilities could, as one example, use "positioning" to deliver interactive mobile navigation aids to visitors.

You are here. To get there, turn right, walk 200 yards, turn left...or follow this onscreen map.

A PDA-based navigational tool introduced on a pilot basis this September at University of Texas at Dallas is heading in that direction -- so to speak -- but it's not quite there.

The UT Insider doesn't use Wi-Fi positioning technology -- yet -- and although the university has been deploying WLAN access points since 1999 and now has over 300 in place, covering 90 percent of the campus, the application doesn't even require a WLAN.

Students, staff and visitors can download the self-contained PDA application from the school's Web site over a wired or wireless network, then synch it to a PDA -- or synch it directly to their Palm unit at one of three infrared (IR) beaming stations set up on campus this fall for the purpose.

The application, created by NearSpace, then sits on the PDA permanently. It's a highly-compressed (500 K) graphical guide to the campus, featuring maps and floor plans tightly integrated with existing database information, including directories and course calendars.

If a new student has a meeting with a professor but doesn't know where to find the person, he can key in the professor's name on his PDA, tap a button and get detailed maps to guide him to the spot, says NearSpace president and CEO Creighton Hoke.

The student could tap on a building in a wide-view map to see a 3D floor plan, then zero in on floor and ultimately the room.

The project was motivated by two factors, explains Doug Jackson, the university's director of technology customer services. First, UT Dallas sees PDAs as a platform that will play an increasing role on campus.

More and more students are coming to school toting Palms and Pocket PCs -- mostly Palms -- and that could provide a way for the school to solve more than one problem down the road and save money, too.

"We inundate new students with paper," Jackson points out. "On where to find things, who to deal with, how to find profs -- just reams of paper. It's getting more and more exorbitant to print all that stuff."

"Plus, students get overwhelmed and throw it out half the time anyway. If we put it on PDAs and give them PDAs, they don't have to lug around big piles of paper."

The NearSpace project was intended as a way for the school to at least start down this paperless road. The deal with NearSpace included development of the application, plus 35 Palm units, which UT distributed to freshman scholarship students, student council members and volunteer campus guides.

Total cost, including NearSpace's fees, PDAs for IT staff and construction of beaming stations: about $24,000, Jackson says.

The university also had a real need to make the campus easier to navigate for visitors and newcomers. "It's a fast-growing campus and it has never had very good signage," Jackson admits.

Initially, it didn't need signs as much as other campuses. It started out as research institute with a small population, then added graduate students, then undergrads. Today's hordes of freshmen and sophomores are having real problems finding their way around -- especially with the somewhat eccentric room numbering scheme, Jackson notes.

As with many university initiatives, though, the PDA strategy at UT Dallas will unfold slowly. The school didn't even publicize the NearSpace application on campus until two weeks into the fall semester -- although pilot users had begun to spread the word.

While it will probably at least keep the application up to date going forward -- adding new buildings and directory items and so on -- there are no immediate plans to leverage the initiative further, and none to add a Wi-Fi location-based capabilities, Jackson says.

The university does see roaming applications and capabilities as important in the development of its WLAN strategy, though, he says.

UT learned early that students don't actually carry their laptops around all the time. When the WLAN was mainly there to serve laptop users, roaming wasn't an important issue.

"People who walk around with their laptops open tend to fall down a lot," Jackson jokes. "With PDAs, though, roaming becomes an absolutely critical issue."

For now, students and visitors with Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs can access the UT Web site and download the NearSpace application -- or look for other information they need. Beyond that, it's not clear how the two initiatives will come together.

NearSpace's Hoke says his company could easily add a location-based network component. "We divide up a space -- a building or campus -- into zones that map very closely to the zone structures that Ekahau and other [Wi-Fi positioning vendors] use," he notes.

To this point, though, nobody has asked NearSpace to do it, despite the obvious and natural fit. "I'd do it in a heartbeat if could find somebody to pay for it," Hoke quips.

Meanwhile, his company has created similar navigational applications for several other universities, including the University of South Dakota, Stanford Law School and University of Chicago, and has others under development.

What NearSpace brings to the table is an integrated development environment (IDE) that makes it relatively simple to integrate existing information in corporate databases with detailed graphical representations of a physical environment, and then keep it continually up to date.

The potential for combining this with location technology seems so obvious, we're wondering why the vendors haven't started knocking on Hoke's door.

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