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ISU Students Create Global Positioning Messages

June 22, 2004

From the Des Moines Register, June 22, 2004.

by Frank Vinluan

Ames, IA - Imagine a search and rescue team trudging through the brush to find a missing hiker. One rescuer stumbles on a ridge strewn with rocks. He taps a quick message on his handheld computer.

When other rescuers approach that spot, the message triggers a warning on their computers. Global positioning systems combined with wireless technology attached the warning to the ridge.

"We store information in space," said Shahzaib Younis, who helped design the computer concept.

The technology is called "spatial cues." Just a vague idea a year ago, the concept has become an acclaimed computer program that is taking three Iowa State University students to Washington, D.C. to compete against nine other finalists in the Computer Society International Design Competition.

The annual student competition drew 250 teams from 144 schools vying for a $15,000 first-place prize. ISU's entry is one of only two U.S. entries selected for the finals, which will be held June 28-29. This year's theme is "Making the World a Safer Place."

The ISU team has also applied separately to the Collegiate Inventors Competition. A win would patent their technology.

Younis, 23, and fellow computer science students Melanie Davis, 27, and Doug Houghton, 22, spent more than five months brainstorming ideas before settling on the spatial cues concept. The students were motivated by the search and rescue efforts of Sept. 11, 2001.

Spatial cues advances a concept common in museums and art galleries where patrons carry devices that play recorded messages, said Simanta Mitra, a computer science professor who advised the team. That message typically plays when a number corresponding to the exhibit is keyed into the device. But with spatial cues, codes don't have to be punched into computers. Messages are triggered just by approaching a targeted location.

"It knows your location not because you type a number but because of your coordinates," Mitra said.

The technology would require rescue workers to wear a harness holding a handheld computer and a global positioning receiver. Global positioning allows a command post to track workers. Messages would be transmitted over a wireless network.

The technology delivers information through text messages, but the students would like to add audio capabilities so workers would not need to look at the device. The team envisions the technology eventually replacing traditional radio dispatches.

Public safety agencies are still developing uses for wireless data systems, said David Beaverstock, regional sales manager for Padcom, a Bethlehem, PA. a wireless technology company that has contracted with public agencies. Agencies now introducing wireless technology are supplementing, rather than replacing, traditional radio dispatches.

Younis said spatial cues' applications could go beyond public safety. Technology conceived to coordinate multiple rescue teams could be adapted for a group of friends to leave messages for each other. Cues could help blind people navigate the city streets. It could be used to leave memos.

For example, a grocery list message could remind a user before reaching the store. As you're driving, it could say, "Buy milk and eggs," Younis said.

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