Hacking Online Applications for Location Awarenessby Christopher Ngan
Throughout the last decade, online applications have incorporated models of real-world interactions in order to build increasingly useful online services. From Amazon's early use of collaborative filtering to pure social networking applications based on user collaboration and sharing, the online experience is clearly better for its increasing approximation of real-world interactions. In spite of the virtual world realizing increased value by copying lessons from the real world, the real-world experience has not yet realized an equivalent level of usability; nor has it benefited from advances made in the online world.
With the advent of a new ad hoc, wireless mesh networking technology designed to support peer-to-peer connectivity in highly mobile networks, the final barrier to location-aware services has been hurdled, allowing a level of network connectivity previously available only in the wire-line internet.
Open source solutions are lowering the cost of rolling out applications. Jabber and XMPP, Asterisk and VXML, and VLC: all industrial-strength open source projects and protocols that can be molded by individual hackers and large companies alike to build a seemingly limitless number of location-aware services. With the cost effectiveness and quality of open source projects and the presence of a new distributed peer-to-peer wireless network technology, the tools are in place for bringing the richness of online applications to the offline world. Furthermore, the location-aware services possible are ideal for brick-and-mortar retailers and service providers offering up a variety of business models crucial to ensuring long-term viability.
With both the core infrastructure and application-level tools so accessible, grassroots hacking and development can result in the use of existing applications modified for location awareness. While the core applications remain similar, their use in a different environment will result in unique standalone uses and novel mashups of text/chat, voice, and video services.
Hacking Chat and IM for Location Awareness
Within the realm of text/chat, typical IM applications can be easily hacked to offer peer-to-peer connectivity that, while nonsensical in the virtual world, becomes highly valuable in the real world. Decentralizing the typical IM infrastructure is trivial, yet doing so enables a new class of location-aware IM and chat functionality that presages the voice and video applications that will be built.
- A strict peer-to-peer IM system built on a suitable multi-hop mesh network enables users within a geographic range to communicate among themselves irrespective of traditional incumbent telecom infrastructure. Straight and collaborative filtering engines can be used to power interest-based roster/buddy-list IM segmentations, allowing users to meet strangers of similar interests and also within a geographic range.
- The multi-hop mesh infrastructure also allows users to view retailer product information online and obtain personalized product information via text/IM technologies. Connecting prospective consumers with a sales representative increases the productivity of the representatives while simultaneously personalizing the prospective customer's experience. The mesh aspect ensures that the prospective customer is within a certain geographic range, making in-person pickup and the sale of perishable goods viable options.
- Location-shifting IM services also allow online users to access location-specific chats as though the user were present. In this system, users can subscribe over the wire-line internet to a mesh device local to the desired location. The mesh device then acts as a proxy for the user, enabling the remote user to act as though they are locally present, whether for informational or curiosity's sake.
- User-generated tagging, whether of product and retailer reviews or simply interesting comments, can add further residual value to the virtual overlay on the real-world, allowing subsequent users to benefit from the shared experiences of all who have passed before them.
Hacking Voice for Location Awareness
Within the realm of voice, many of the same principles apply, but with the increased interactivity and richness of voice. The ability to route IP calls on to and off from the PSTN network through the use of Asterisk further improves the backwards-compatibility of next-generation, location-aware voice services built on VXML and other open protocols. Some of the applications that can be built include:
- A strict peer-to-peer voice system, integrated with the IM system noted previously, that tightens the strength of peer-to-peer, location-based social services. While interesting in its own right, the use of filtering systems allows strangers (or friends, friends of friends, etc.) to meet one another using a more natural medium than text. Online dating and de-virtualization of other stranger-meeting-based online sites could conceivably be natural adopters.
- Location-based click-to-call, made possible through Asterisk, adds a second and more familiar dimension to prospective customer-retailer interaction. Whether the call is entirely IP-based or uses tokens to initiate a pure POTS call, the value to the retailer of receiving inbound interested customer calls is significant. For the consumer, the familiarity of obtaining information directly from a fellow human and placing an order over the phone likely bypasses many of the e-commerce concerns people have today.
- Location-based searches, or even personalized tag-profile-driven searches, can be returned via traditional POTS or IP softphones. Voice-based results initially scraped from online searches can already be built utilizing Voxeo's VXML platform and Asterisk. However, the medium through which the search results are returned need not be limited to voice, and can take an unlimited number of forms whether through online mashups or voice/video/chat application mashups.
- Voice-tagging and the use of VXML for text-to-speech capabilities can allow users to access both text tags and voice recordings left by previous people in order to generate a better context of a location, retailer, event, or service provider, based on the notes of others. While the information is likely to be extensive, simple filtering technologies can ensure that the most relevant information best reflecting the experiences of others is presented.
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