To main content

IT building blocks for the man in the street

The SINTEF researchers have developed the City Explorer application. This is an Android app that enables users to create their own city guide.
Would you like to create your own tourist guide? Or put together telecom services that give you better control of the everyday functions on your phone?  

By Åse Dragland

We seem to be drowning in ‘intelligent things’ and IT services. In our smart home, we can use various applications to control the front door, TV, washing machine, vacuum, heating and blinds.

Other apps enable us to find out what time the bus is leaving, or book a table at a restaurant. On the medical side, there are sensors that can monitor your heart rate, intelligent pill boxes that remember when you should take your medicine, and applications to notify relatives if an elderly person doesn’t get out of bed at their normal time.

But what if you go on holiday, and want to be able to water the plants in your garden, or turn the heating on or off in a certain room when the weather changes? Do you want to keep checking on in your hotel room, or use various different apps to control your house remotely? Wouldn’t it be better if you could programme your house before you set off, and then enjoy your holiday without worrying?

‘We’re now seeing many intelligent devices affecting our lives, and we are expecting to see more,’ says Jacqueline Floch at SINTEF ICT. ‘The question is whether people out there will be able to function independently. Some will manage to acquire the right technology skills and tailor IT services to their own needs, while others will feel overwhelmed by the huge choice’.

The researchers’ idea is therefore to create a tool composed of different building blocks, so that people can select, combine and put together the services they need.

‘Since most people aren’t qualified programmers or software developers, we have to provide them with a new user interface and a tool that they can understand,’ says Floch.

Working with companies
For the last four years, the ICT researchers – supported by the Research Council of Norway and the VERDIKT programme – have been working with the three companies Tellu, Gintel and Wireless Trondheim on various aspects of the project. The result is the ‘UbiSys’ framework.

Tellu currently develops software systems for the mobile market, while Gintel creates software for telecom operators and service providers, and Wireless Trondheim offers a network on which new IT services can be operated experimentally.

Easier tracking

The researchers have used the services offered by these companies as their starting point. For example, Tellu in Oslo markets the SmartTrack service platform. This allows different tracking services to connect and work together to monitor mobile units, whether these are devices or people.

It is possible to track these units, irrespective of their situation and condition, such as their location, movement or battery level. For example, users in the transport industry can track containers, while a smelting plant can keep track of its tools.

‘The SmartTrack interface supports the definition of rules such as “if a person has a fall, notify a relative” or “if a tool is not indoors by 20:00, send an alarm to the duty officer”. This interface is complex, and requires programming expertise. We have simplified this, allowing Tellus’s customers to create their own rules,’ says Floch.

By combining SmartTrack with ‘UbiSys’, she thinks that ‘the man in the street’ will be able to use the service.

Telecom services
Gintel develops systems that enable telecom operators and service providers to tailor services to their corporate customers. These services might be managing incoming calls or conference services.

Gintel currently offers its operators the ‘Easy Designer’ framework which allows users to modify existing services and quickly create new solutions. No software development expertise is needed to use Easy Designer, but users need to be expert in the communication and training domains.

In response to requests from its clients, Gintel is now moving towards the end users of telecom services, i.e. telephone users. The company has therefore started using ‘UbiSys’, enabling end users to put together telephone services themselves. The result is ‘EasyDroid’.

‘What we have done,’ says Jacqueline Floch, ‘is give people a way of controlling the everyday functions on their phones. You can link incoming calls to your calendar and location. If you’re in a meeting or at a concert, you can set the phone so that it automatically diverts calls.

You can also choose to receive calls from ‘important’ people, send a text when the meeting is over, or forward the call to someone else. There are many options. The point is that you are in control and can put things together in any way you like.’

City Explorer
In order to demonstrate to a broader audience how they envisage these tools made of different building blocks, the SINTEF researchers have developed the City Explorer application. This is an Android app that enables users to create their own city guide.

The app lets people create or edit places and itineraries in a city, and the new prototype includes three examples for Trondheim: one for tourists, one for people interested in architecture, and one for visitors interested in sculptures.

‘Again, the important thing is that people can put things together just as they want,’ says Jacqueline Floch. ‘We are interested in adding to existing functions, so that the user can create their own “menu list”.

For example, you can set your phone to go to silent mode in specific locations. Or you can get your phone to automatically obtain the bus timetable for the next stop on a given itinerary, and remind you when you are due to be arriving at that stop.

Some people prefer to do this manually, while others are easily distracted and forget to do it. People are different, and that’s why we want to give them the option of controlling everyday things themselves.’

The research group now needs funding for further work, which will focus on the elderly and AAL – Ambient Assisted Living, or welfare technology.

Fact box:

UbiSys – framework for end user service development.
UbiSys is made up of three tools:

UbiCompPro – a tool for professionals, which they use to develop ‘building blocks’.
UbiComposer – an editor for end users, which they use to put together building blocks.
UbiCompRun – middleware (runtime platform), used to execute services put together by users.

 Åse Dragland