'Friendspotting' on MIT's campus

iFind plots people's locations based on Wi-Fi access

Do you remember the old-fashioned college days when a friend would call you by cell phone to let you know when "he" turned up at the library? Or maybe you figured out someone's class schedule, so you could just happen to be walking by when "she" got out. Technology, once again, is changing the game.

The Senseable City Lab at MIT released a free desktop application on Wednesday with real-time mapping and instant-messaging features. iFind, as it's called, works by detecting which Wi-Fi access point a person is near. Because MIT has over 2,800 Wi-Fi access points on its sprawling campus, iFind can pinpoint someone's location within feet. Not only can it identify the building or outdoor area, but also the floor and room in most cases.

iFind
MIT

Of course, MIT students will have to come up with an excuse for that special someone to share their info. As with regular instant-messaging programs, users have to accept an invite to be on someone's buddy list and map.

The program plots buddies on a virtual map of MIT with mini avatars. The avatars move around the virtual map in real time. Hovering over an avatar reveals the person's name and location, while clicking on the avatar starts a chat session.

Because iFind is in-tune with MIT's network, users do not have to be logged in to the network to be "seen," according to the site. They only have to have an enabled Wi-Fi card. The program, according to François Proulx, the iFind software architect, is expected to be particularly popular among students, but anyone with an "mit.edu" e-mail can download and use it.

To avoid privacy issues, Proulx said, the client was specifically developed to work peer-to-peer instead of via a centralized network. For this reason, the program is not capable of retaining personalized data. However, it does work with iSpots, another MIT program that tracks general usage statistics of MIT Wi-Fi access points.

As with regular instant-messaging programs, users can choose to be temporarily invisible to a specific buddy or all buddies. iFind also allows users to reveal online status, while keeping their location private.

The program was developed under Carlo Ratti, the Senseable City Lab director responsible for Real Time Rome, a real-time mapping programs that tracks people by cell phone signal. Under the GNU General Public License, the open-source iFind client will be made available for any other group that wishes to construct its own iFind network.

About the author

In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.

 

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