York prof helps to democratize the mobile technology industry

Leading-edge, creative, and future-oriented – these adjectives all apply to York University Professor Barbara Crow’s research on digital and mobile technologies. Working as part of an interdisciplinary team, Crow is helping to develop new ways in which Canadians can create, access and share content through mobile, or wireless, devices, such as cell phones.

“What we are interested in doing as a group of social scientists, artists, designers and engineers is to create cultural content and develop applications on mobile technologies to allow people to use them in different ways than we are normally used to,” says Crow (right), who teaches in the joint graduate program in Communication & Culture, offered by York University and Ryerson University. She is also involved in CONCERT, a York-led consortium of academic institutions, companies and government and industry associations that are collaborating to boost the entertainment, new media and creative industries in Canada and in the GTA, in particular.

On sabbatical until June, Crow has spent the past year in Montreal, where she has been active with the Mobile Digital Commons Network (MDCN). Funded by Canadian Heritage and institutional partners, including York University, the MDCN facilitates innovation and policy development on wireless technologies by connecting Canadian academic researchers, artists and business people.

As part of an MDCN initiative, Crow and her associates have developed an interactive, location-based game called The Haunting. Game players are sent on “a special mission” – to find eight ghosts in Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, using their cell phones– at night.

Though in its rules The Haunting resembles an old-fashioned scavenger hunt, the technology it uses – GPS (global positioning satellite systems) and Bluetooth beacons – is anything but traditional. Bluetooth is a computer network that enables wireless connections between mobile devices over radio frequencies. Beacons are small electronic gadgets that direct information wirelessly to mobile devices. GPS systems transmit signals that can determine a receiver’s location.

Left: Map tracing the route of The Haunting, a game that incorporates mobile technology

Players are kitted out with GPS- and Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, a GPS locator and a flashlight. As they progress through the game and enter different GPS hotspots, they receive instructions through their cell phone. Sounds and images coming from beacons, specially programmed to detect the presence of cell phones, alert players when they are near a ghost.

As one of the social scientists on The Haunting development team, Crow, and her colleague Professor Kim Sawchuk at Concordia University, studied about 60 volunteers as they played the game. This type of usability study is rarely done in Canada, she says. In contrast, research in the EU is well ahead, says Crow: “They are doing a lot more work around inter-operability of devices and personal area networks. These trends are happening, and I think Canadians should be a part of them.”

Given this lag in research, The Haunting, which was created through the collaboration efforts of professionals from leading Canadian institutions, including the Banff New Media Institute, Concordia University and the Ontario College of Design, is significant.

What makes it revolutionary is the Mobile Experience Engine (MEE) software application that runs the game. Developed by the MDCN engineering team, this tool allows designers, artists, filmmakers, or anyone with computer-coding knowledge, to easily upload content, such as video, images and sound, onto cell phones, says Crow.

The concept is familiar to anyone who has created even the most basic personal Web site. But, constraints within the mobile communications field have made it virtually impossible for individuals to post content in the way they can on the Internet. “You can send text messages back and forth and send images, but you cannot create content and deliver it over a wireless device,” says Crow.

One of the constraints relates to the system that apportions radio airwaves (or spectrum) over which wireless information are transmitted. Spectrum is divided into licensed and unlicensed. “Licensed spectrum is largely owned by telecommunications companies and is very expensive to purchase,” says Crow. “Only a very small portion of the airwaves that are available (unlicensed) are public.”

Right: Participants get ready to tour the Mount Royal site prior to playing The Haunting

Secondly, the coding available to produce and post content on wireless devices is mostly proprietary, says Crow. Unlike Internet coding, notably the easy-to-learn HTML that anyone can use to create and code Web sites, telecommunications coding has been developed by telecommunications companies and is generally for use only with their products.

With the creation of MEE, which operates on unlicensed spectrum and is open-sourced (available without cost), the MDCN team has changed the telecommunications landscape. Now, artists and social activists – two groups that usually have limited financial resources – will be able to easily inform cell-phone users about their work. And, if the mobile technology field follows the Internet industry’s lead, many commercial applications will also be developed. Open-source applications have been used by many business ventures to develop Web sites that generate huge profits, dating and networking forums among them. Similar money-making commercial opportunities for Canadian companies using mobile technologies may be on the horizon.

Crow notes that MEE also has nation-building implications. “I think it’s very important for us to have content developed by Canadians and applications that are relevant to our content,” she says. “Historically, one of the reasons that we have had the railway and such excellent land [telephone] lines is that we are very concerned about connecting Canadians. Part of being Canadian has been trying to attend to our huge land mass and communications devices have been way to bring us together.”

For more on this research initiative, visit the online journal wi.

Story by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.