Imagine being able to use cellphones to share data with other phones or mobile devices nearby in a way that could allow you to avoid traffic jams on your way to work — or find the best way out of a burning building.
That’s the idea behind “Infinity”, prototype middleware developed by IBM researchers and graduate students for data-sharing among mobile devices. The middleware could allow users to connect and share information between devices, regardless of operating system, hardware or communication modes.
IBM won’t say when Infinity — which IBM calls the first standard way to share data between diverse mobile devices directly in ad hoc networks — will be ready for sale. However, it says it could be used for ad hoc networking that could involve traffic monitoring or responses to natural disasters.
“The idea for Infinity started with realising we have a whole lot of mobile devices such as cellphones, PDAs and even USB memory sticks, which all store a lot of information,” says Stefan Schoenauer, lead researcher on the Infinity team. “So we wondered: what if we could tap into all those devices and make all that information accessible?”
Schoenauer says devices “speak so many different languages” given the various operating systems, hardware and software features now in use. “It’s hard to connect devices and to share information among them,” he says. “So we’ve built a piece of software that runs atop all these mobile devices and makes them speak a common language, makes the exchange of information easier and takes security and privacy into account so that you’re only sharing information with whom you want.”
Work on the concept began a year ago, and the middleware is currently just 200KB in size, Schoenauer says. It still needs features added for greater stability and use.
IBM gives a number of possible uses. In one example, a beleaguered driver commuting to work could use their cellphone to get data directly from mobile devices from other people stuck in traffic. That data could be shared atop Infinity via Bluetooth wireless or GPRS.
Another example is a disaster scenario in which damaged cellphone towers knock out cellular service. Using Bluetooth atop Infinity, rescue workers could more easily track the locations of co-workers or victims, according to IBM.
In a third example, a user would be able to set security and privacy controls so that only members of an account team in a large company could share data — or in a hospital, patient information could be shared only among authorised doctors and care providers.
The prototype so far has been designed for Windows Mobile devices, on which it has been shown to work with two applications, although researchers envision that it will eventually be used with other operating systems.
“It’s not a ready-made product, and I don’t know when and in what form this might be a product,” Schoenauer says. “We’re in the very early stages of the product, but the possibilities are great. It should work on pretty much any platform ... It’s got huge potential.”The two applications that have been shown to work with the middleware so far include one that gives a user the best evacuation routes from a building during an emergency. Users in an office setting were given GPS-equipped cellphones and handheld devices, and a routing algorithm in each device asked the others, automatically, which device (and user) was nearby. It then used that information to determine where crowded exits were and drew a less-crowded route for the user to take.
Infinity could also allow one device to share entire applications with other devices, he says. “If your colleague doesn’t have your address book application on his cellphone, his phone could be asked by your phone if he wants it installed. If he says he is fine with this, then the application is automatically shared and started.”
Four graduate students worked on Infinity last year as part of IBM’s Extreme Blue internship programme. One of the students, Leonard Lee, described the process as “intense and fun”. Lee is working on an MBA degree at the University of California and devoted his attention to understanding the business rationale for the prototype and how to take it to market.
“I don’t know what the future holds for it,” he says. “I can see it as a product that will take the internet beyond its current state from what is now a network of stand-alone devices to devices [that are] connected. From a data standpoint, it would open the floodgates.”
Schoenauer says IBM had come up with the basic idea before the students worked on features, including privacy protection.
One independent university researcher has already expressed interest in further development of the prototype. Clement Allen, associate professor of computer and information systems at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, says he wants to work with IBM to build Infinity applications that new students to his college might use to find other students with common interests. For example, new students could use a device to share a personal profile when walking into a classroom for the first time. In another example, a student could stand in a dormitory lobby and query whether other students in the building are studying for the same test.
“I want to develop the idea further and have students test it [over the next year],” Allen says.