Bangalore: Three years after starting with the premise that a problem has better chances of being solved by being close to it, Microsoft Research (MSR) India is ready with a tool that could make online location search here and in other countries easier and more accurate.
The Bangalore lab of MSR has developed a new system that can handle ill-formed or ambiguous text queries, particularly applicable to India where it is commonplace to find landmarks (“Near Shiva Temple” or “Opposite Govt. High School”) or intersection of streets part of addresses.
The search system is independent of region and can support widely different address formats.
Technology direction: Microsoft Research India managing director P.Anandan. (Photo: Hemant Mishra/ Mint)
“Even globally, address geocoding is challenging because there is no single address format that applies to all geographies,” said Joseph Joy, who leads this research group at MSR India. Geocoding is the process of identifying a place by indicators such as latitude-longitude coordinates.
Microsoft researchers have built a prototype location search system using this technique that supports several cities in three countries with varying addressing schemes: Bangalore, India; Seattle and surrounding cities in the US; and London in the UK.
“We have found that our system not only provides results on a variety of location queries in any of these cities, but it significantly outperforms existing geocodes on all ill-formed and free-form query types,” said Vibhuti Sengar, a co-developer of the system at MSR India, referring to providers Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. Typing queries in Hindi, he demonstrated how unstructured queries such as “near RTO office on 2nd Main, Indira Nagar, Bangalore” gave accurate results that other search systems could not match. The piece of research is set to enter the Microsoft mapping service, MSN Live Local Maps, but the researchers didn’t know how soon.
In the next phase, the MSR group plans to make this search system work on a large scale and ‘cross lingually’, that where the language of the query and the underlying searchable data are in two different languages.
With an eye on the Beijing Olympics, the researchers are trying to see if the system can help people search a location in China where the underlying data is in Chinese.
“Both from commercial and academic point of view, this is an unsolved problem,” said Joy.
Several global technology companies such as International Business Machines Corp. and Intel Corp., as also local firms Tata Consultancy Services Ltd and Infosys Technologies Ltd, are using their labs here in India to solve global problems, believes Pankaj Jalote at the department of computer science and engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, “but the degree to which MSR India is defining the problem locally is higher than others”.
In another project, MSR India is entering into an interesting area with the Union government’s department of science and technology or DST. Using its “geovisualization” technologies, like Photosynth (a photo stitching technology that allows one to experience the picture) and HD View (image viewer particularly for very large images), it plans to capture images of heritage monuments in India digitally.
“These are seed technologies, which we will start with, but eventually it would require more research, perhaps even a global collaboration, to execute the project,” said P. Anandan, managing director of MSR India. The details of the project are still being worked on, but the aim is to create a three-dimension experience of the architectural marvels.
As a pilot case, MSR is working on the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. “We have found a partner in the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad,” said Debapriyo Dutta, additional director at DST. As different partners come along in different cities, monuments will be taken up, he added.
DST set up a group on geovisualization two years ago to explore avenues to promote the concept and its use in applications in India.
M.P. Ranjan, chairman of the group and director of National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, believes if the rural people were empowered to use the technology, it would usher in a revolutionary mapping system and “might even give an entirely new kind of information”.
With access to the MSR technology, volunteers can evolve a new method to collect geographical information via a simple digital camera.