From PARC, the mobile phone as tour guide

reporter's notebook Legendary lab develops mobile software that suggests activities based on where you are, time of day, personal preferences and past behavior. Images: 'Magitti' mobile app gets you there

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

reporter's notebook PALO ALTO, Calif.--Imagine you find yourself in a city you don't know very well.

Maybe you are on vacation, or on business travel, or just exploring an area of your own city you aren't familiar with. It's a sunny afternoon and you think to yourself, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a gelato?" Or a little later in the day, you find yourself hankering for a margarita, but you don't know where to get one.

Today, most people wandering foreign streets in search of something ask someone passing by. If you have a particular store in mind and your mobile phone is Web data-enabled, you can use the Internet and an online map. But if you don't know exactly what you want, there's no real guide.

Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC--the Xerox subsidiary that was the birthplace of the laser printer and the Ethernet--has developed a mobile application that offers up information that would be useful to a wanderer--things like shops, restaurants and event listings based on your location (via the GPS device in the phone) and the time of day, as well as your preferences and past behavior.

The leisure city guide system will be commercialized by Dai Nippon Printing (DNP) in Japan, with trials scheduled to start in the spring and general availability in that country in spring 2009. There's no word on whether the principals plan to bring it to the U.S.

I got a demonstration of the software, code-named "Magitti," at a press event here on Thursday, and I must say it looks very cool. (The code name is derived from two early design concepts, a magic scope and a digital graffiti system.)

"It predicts the likely activity," said Bo Begole, a co-leader on the project. For example, coffee shops might be displayed in the morning hours, stores throughout the day, and restaurants, bars and movies at night.

The more you interact with it--showing preference for things and rating them--the more it learns about your personal tastes, and its suggestions reflect that. It uses collaborative filtering to recommend things that others with similar tastes like and allows people to input their own ratings and reviews.

The system also can detect clues to your activities in e-mails and text messages. That may sound creepy to some people, but is it any more creepy than the prospect of getting ads served up based on the context of your e-mails a la Gmail? What about getting ads on your phone based on your location, or even based on conversations you've had, which start-up Pudding Media will be doing?

The analysis of personal communications happens on the handset and not on servers at the company, Begole said. In addition, Japan has some of the strictest consumer privacy protection regulations in the world, he added.

But back to the demonstration. The PARC developers, a delegation from DNP, myself and a few others stepped out onto a sidewalk in downtown Palo Alto armed with mobile phones running the Windows Mobile operating system.

The interface was easy to understand, with large touch-screen "buttons" that you stroke with your thumb to navigate. The experience is similar to that of the Apple iPhone, but this interface isn't nearly as slick. Another difference is that you can use one hand to operate this system, something many people say you can't do with the iPhone.

At around 11:30 a.m. Pacific time, the system offered up a host of lunchtime restaurants located nearby, a home furnishings store (in case I felt like shopping) and a gym (in case I felt like sweating). It was easy to expand or limit the distance of suggestions and the type of cuisine, say.

The system will not offer up any merchants who are closed for business at that particular hour, so when we accidentally changed the clock to 4 a.m., the system displayed no listings. It was downtown Palo Alto, after all.

From my personal cell phone I sent the test device a text message saying "Fancy Thai?" After the test device received the message, the system suggested local Thai restaurants, including one with Bangkok in the name, recognizing that as a city in Thailand.

There were times when our efforts to use the system were thwarted by a slowdown in the T-Mobile cellular network, but in Japan users shouldn't have that problem. And I was informed that sometimes the GPS system is a bit off, positioning further down the street than it really is.

We tried to filter the restaurant suggestions so that the pricier ones would appear at the top and the network slowed down, delaying the results. I remarked that DNP could install a "budget" filter that blocks expensive stores. "That's a feature, not a bug," a PARC employee joked.

As much as I can now use my mobile phone to get directions and maps and locate the nearest Starbucks, I can't get a bunch of suggestions of things I might want to do given that I have a few hours to waste on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Monterey, Calif. But actually, doesn't everybody know that the place to go is the Monterey Bay Aquarium?

 
Correction: This story incorrectly stated the PARC's association with the development of the mouse and the graphical user interface. Both were invented at Stanford Research Institute.
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