New Delhi: Imagine how easier life would be for people driving on India’s roads, if they could avoid a traffic situation, a crowded junction, or a road full of potholes, just by using their smartphones.
Microsoft Research (MSR) India, the research arm of Microsoft Corp., the world’s largest software firm, is currently researching a software solution, TrafficSense, which will help smartphone users automatically monitor road and traffic conditions while they are on the move. TrafficSense uses different sensors on these phones—radio such as bluetooth or cellular wireless; microphone; global positioning system or GPS; an accelerometer; or even the camera—to help phone users monitor traffic and save time.
Green light: MSR India’s Anandan says the idea takes advantage of cellphones as sensory devices to provide real-time information for others. (Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/ Mint)
TrafficSense is designed to enable users to send information to a central server, where it can be aggregated and results delivered to other customers. “The idea here is to take advantage of mobile phones as sensory devices that can provide real-time information for the benefit of others,” said P. Anandan, managing director of MSR India.
“This requires a way of communicating with the devices. So, while the accelerometer can detect potholes, the microphone can detect the extent of honking in the area, and the camera can provide photographs.”
Work on traffic monitoring has been done for developed countries that have simple traffic flow patterns, but India comes with its set of complexities. “Rich sensing is critical in the context of the cities of the developing world.”
Anandan heads a team of around 55 people in Bangalore, of which 48 researchers currently focus on seven research groups—algorithms, cryptography and security, digital geographies, mobility, networks and systems, multilingual systems, software engineering, and technology for emerging markets.
Two other MSR India-developed solutions recently demonstrated at a Microsoft internal tech fair at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters include SixthSense, which uses radio frequency identification device or RFID-based intelligence to search for objects, and NetPrints, a system that uses shared knowledge among users to help easily configure computer systems.
SixthSense could be a blessing for the chronic absent-minded among us. Though RFID is widely used to track the movement of goods through a supply chain, in this solution it ensures interaction between people and their misplaced personal objects such as books, laptops and mobile phones, or even between people.
In an enterprise that has a good coverage of RFID readers, people and their objects are tagged with inexpensive, passive RFID tags. “SixthSense is a clever way of combining RFID as a sensor with other patterns and behaviour of people,” Anandan said.
Users could also use physical events to index their experiences (for instance, “Was my laptop with me when I received a phone call from person X?”).
By combining mobility information from RFID sensing and information from enterprise systems, SixthSense is able to automatically distinguish between people and objects, learn the identities of people, and infer the ownership of objects by people.
NetPrints, on the other hand, was inspired after the mother of a researcher at MSR frequently called her daughter when her computer had configuration problems such as the instant messenger not working or the browser taking inordinate time to load Web pages. NetPrints is targeted at the home user.
A home network is typically a collection of several devices and applications, creating a rich, diverse and unmanaged network which, more often than not, has to be administered and configured by the home users themselves, and can be a difficult task. When a home user runs into problems, they either ask a friend to fix it, or look online for solutions, or call technical support personnel. This manual process could not only take up a significant amount of time, it also causes immense frustration to the home user.
“NetPrints leverages shared knowledge in a population of users to diagnose and resolve misconfigurations. Basically, if one user has figured out the fix for a problem, we would like this knowledge made available to another user experiencing the same problem,” Anandan said.
NetPrints automatically records and totals configuration information from a large population of users, looks up the suitable information when a new client experiences a similar problem, and suggests configuration changes to resolve the problem.
“All our research is derived from the societal problems facing the region. All our six labs (in the world) work together, but in India, we tend to pay more attention to projects like TrafficSense, SixthSense and NetPrints. India and China tend to see more innovations for emerging markets.”
All the three projects are still in the laboratory and have not been tested in the field. “All these projects are ongoing with initial results. In the case of NetPrints and SixthSense, we are in some discussions with product groups (within Microsoft) on the technology transfer for some areas. We have seen transfers happening in a week and some in five years,” Anandan said.