17 October 2004

Your Guide around Town

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Guidebooks’ days are numbered. Tourist offices should be concerned. Time Out and the like should worry too. People will no longer need them for directions or to arrange their evenings

Guidebooks’ days are numbered. Tourist offices should be concerned. Time Out and the like should worry too. People will no longer need them for directions or to arrange their evenings, whether at home or abroad. Thanks to Ambiesense’s new information technology system, both mobile phones and PDAs will allow you to see what is in town, from monuments and shops to leisure facilities, according to your taste, interests and budget.

It’s a sunny afternoon in Seville, sizzling almost. Some locals are having a siesta, others are at work or at school. The majority of the people wandering downtown are tourists and among them Lolkje and Joost, a nice young Dutch couple, appear fixated by their mobile phones. They have been strolling around Seville since they arrived this morning. It is their first time in the Andalusian city, and they only have 24 hours to discover its beauties.

They have no guidebook or city-map yet they seem familiar with Seville. Lolkje has found some wonderful Sevillian china, without paying over the odds. Joost looks content with the latest Flamenco CDs that he bought second-hand in a small obscure street, near Plaza San Francisco. They got these tips from their mobile phones.

Joost and Lolkje are more than ordinary tourists. They have agreed to test a new technology project called ‘Ambiesense’. Earlier today they met a group of young researchers in front of the Alcazar palace. Supported by the EU, these young people, from various European countries, have developed a new information architecture system. It provides users with information about their surroundings via their mobile phones or PDAs. Eager to put it to the test, the team was looking for volunteers in Seville. The young couple agreed to participate, out of curiosity and to have an interesting story to tell when back home.

Right tip, right moment, right place
The greatest advantage of Ambiesense is that you only receive the information you request. This is possible due to the implementation of intelligent agents which take into account your interests, situation, social preferences, spatio-temporal aspects, and other factors in the surrounding area. Joost and Lolkje entered these details into the two mobile phones they had been given. Ayse Golcer, a senior Spanish lecturer involved in the project explained to the couple, “You have the opportunity to set some preferences, some price ranges, some areas you are interested in, or hotel type ranges, type of cuisine, vegetarian, tapas, and so on, and the system tries to recommend things on the basis of that”. From that moment on, they no longer needed to rely on paper notes, maps, signs, and so on because recommendations were automatically sent as pop-up messages, signalled by a short tune.

Tonight, Joost wants to surprise Lolkje, and has just reserved a table in a tapas bar best suited to them in terms of ambience, menu, price and proximity to their hotel. To get a recommendation, he just typed his preferences into the phone. Finally, he has chosen one bar that was recommended to him. He will find it simply by following the animated map and address provided on his mobile. A short tune will then let him know when they have arrived at the bar. In the meantime, they will also get other advice on events such as bullfighting and Flamenco shows in the area. Why not after dinner?

Ethereal messengers
The two volunteers found it easy to extract, retrieve and filter the recommendations, yet they did not understand what the source of the information was. Hans Inge Myrhaug, Head of the project, was happy to clarify this point, “All tips are sent to mobiles by small electronic devices called tags. These ‘tags’ are context-sensitive: they capture and communicate data about the surroundings, without need of further specification. They are unique as they can store a large amount of structured data and can be updated with information from remote network nodes, and -no worries- data transmission is secured.”

As a matter of fact, the couple saw these tags scattered all around the city, in hotels, restaurants, museums, shopping centres, and even outdoors. It has almost become a competition between them to find where the tags are mounted: on a shop’s window just in front of them, in a vehicle across the road, or even under their table at the restaurant.

Nobody knows who won! At the end of the trial the couple thanked the researchers for their extraordinary experience and left for their romantic evening. But what the couple may not be aware of is that Ambiesense technology is already being used at Oslo airport. There, users are able to find where their exit gates, tax-free shops, toilets and coffee shops are with just a quick glance at the map on their hand-held computers. Additionally, flight operators in the area can communicate their special offers or flights to the users if requested. Seville is only the first step towards implementation of Ambiesense in many cities throughout Europe.

All-in-all, people like Joost and Lolkje -and the rest of us- can start imaging a new way of travelling, without having to read through guidebooks or taking out maps. The end of carrying big, uncomfortable and heavy paper with us really seems to be very near now!

 

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