Lab Generating New Ideas for a Wireless Future

At the MobileLabat UT Dallas, cell phones do more than allow people to communicate with one another. In the hands of MobileLab researchers, these ubiquitous hand-held devices are like Alice’s rabbit hole: a portal to experience a different reality.

A 3-D avatar created with augmented reality superimposes graphical images over a real field of vision.

“Mobile technology, because it is also a social tool, is radically changing the way we think about our world and interact with it,” said Dean Terry, director of MobileLab and an associate professor in the School of Arts and Humanities. “A lot of our work explores the difference between the mobile experience and the desktop one, and the collaboration with others on new kinds of meaningful interactions with people and places via mobile devices.”

Less than 2 years old, MobileLab is supported by some of the world’s biggest technology and wireless companies. Ericsson, Texas Instruments, Research in Motion, Samsung and Apple are helping fund hardware, software and graduate student stipends. Ideas in the development stage include:

  • An iPhone application called Placethings, which uses Global Positioning System technology to enable the creation, placement and viewing of photos, video and audio in a specific locale. This platform creates virtual layers of information and “place-based conversations” accessible via an iPhone.
  • My Mobile Pet. A 3-D avatar created with an emerging technology called augmented reality, in which graphics appear superimposed over a real field of vision, creating a somewhat hallucinatory effect. When viewed through the camera phone, the avatar is seen as a virtual object moving in actual space and time.

Graduate students from engineering, computer science, and arts and technology – which includes specialties in game, animation and Web design, among other disciplines – collaborate on projects. Some students have technology expertise, while others focus on design and user experience. The result is an interdisciplinary team that can do the back-end engineering for a technology project and design a user-friendly interface, too.

Students at the UT Dallas MobileLab are encouraged to hold brainstorming sessions to keep a steady stream of ideas coming.

Industry collaboration is important. Last year Ericsson gave the lab $100,000 with the only stipulation that it devise new uses for its wireless technology. A team of faculty and graduate students from the Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science and ATEC worked with Ericsson engineers over the course of nine months to come up with the idea of a bicycle outfitted with a wireless sensor network that monitors a rider’s vital signs and streams that data to the athlete’s coach.

In addition to Terry, the team included Dinesh Bhatia, an associate professor of electrical engineering and director of the school’s Embedded and Adaptive Computing Group, and Balakrishnan Prabhakaran, associate professor of computer science.

The team performed hardware and software systems integration and created a slick user interface. Ericsson executives were so impressed by the bike that it was featured at the company’s trade booth last spring during CTIA Wireless, the world’s largest wireless industry event. And the resulting system operates on very low power, which will be particularly important in spin-off applications under consideration for firefighters, soldiers and recently discharged patients, Dr. Bhatia noted.

“That’s what comes of giving free rein to a multidisciplinary team of bright graduate students and faculty,” said Dr. Bhatia.

Terry, a former West Coast entrepreneur, designed MobileLab to be more like a technology startup than a traditional university research lab. To keep a steady stream of ideas coming, his team holds regular brainstorming meetings, where ideas flow freely and industry partners are invited.

“Although the MobileLab relies on technology at its core, it functions more like a creative community,” said Simon Kane, graduate student in arts and technology. “I credit Dean Terry and his academic and industry background for this open approach. He lets students conceptualize and develop their own ideas with a tremendous amount of freedom and creativity.”

The wireless industry is taking notice of MobileLab. The students have been invited to present their ideas at such influential tech conferences as Mobilize, which is organized by the wireless technology blog, GigaOm; and Supernova, whose host is the technology startup blog TechCrunch and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Terry says the ideas from MobileLab are an example of the kinds of research that students majoring in Emerging Media and Communication at UT Dallas will have a chance to pursue once the new degree program begins in the fall.