The New Media Institute Educates the Wireless Market

The market for wireless mobile communications is being held back—in the classic chicken vs. the egg manner—by a shortage of compelling content, according to Scott Shamp, director of the New Media Institute (NMI) at the University of Georgia at Athens. So, in an effort to release wireless' potential, the NMI has launched a Mobile Media Consortium to foster collaborative relationships with mobile-minded companies. And perhaps more importantly, Shamp has unleashed the creativity of his students. Indeed, it is the research work of his students that is luring corporations like Hewlett Packard, ExecuTrain, XcelleNet, and Air2Web to join the consortium. One reward to consortium participants is the opportunity to see the prototypes that college students are creating, and let's face it—this is the demographic group most likely to be mobile application end-users. Who better to gauge what kind of content young people want (and will pay for) than young people themselves?

To give NMI students a test bed for their mobile media ideas, the university has installed a Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless cloud over a 24-block section of downtown Athens, Georgia (the University's home). This area is called the Wireless Athens Group Zone (or WAGZone) and on any given day, you're likely to see students strolling the streets with their heads bent over their Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs testing or simply using a host of student-produced prototype applications available (via the Wi-Fi cloud) from a server on campus.

Shamp likes to call the WAGZone a "mobile media sandbox," and admits that his students are "tinkering with mobile media content," but says they aren't just playing around. They are brainstorming for applications that "improve the quality of life and help people do the things they want to do better," says Shamp. "We're trying to find the answers to the question: What do people want to do when they are mobile?"

So far 35 mobile media student projects have been deployed to the WAGZone, addressing "Quality of Life Verticals"—Education, Healthcare, Emergency Services, Entertainment, Public Transportation, City Revitalization, Special Needs or Disability Assistance, Urban Monitoring and Reporting, and Visitor Information. Among the most interesting student-generated prototypes are:

  • "Nimbus"—This "buddy finder" allows PDA-carrying students to locate and meet up with their PDA-carrying buddies who are hanging out at Athens' hippest places. Shamp calls this a "location-based" application.
  • "VisiTour/MoniTour"—Also location-based, this application can customize a tour of Athens to suit each PDA-toting tourist, according to his or her interests and familiarity with the town. It will actually sense where the user is geographically and suggest nearby landmarks. In this way, the tour actually follows the user and adapts to the user as he or she moves about.
  • "Byte Sized Learning"—To improve the quality of large lecture classes, this application uses exercises that force a student to meet and interact with other students. In this way a community is built which fosters peer support and results in better learning performance, according to Shamp. The application also prompts students to fill out a "Got It/Don't Got It" list at the end of each class. This list gets forwarded to the teacher, who can review it to find out which lecture points the majority of the class have assimilated ("Got It") and which ones have gone over their heads ("Don‘t Got It"). The professor can then adapt his next day's lesson plan accordingly.
  • "MMBus"—This application is an attempt to motivate more students to use the bus by keeping them entertained, according to NMI student and application co-creator Neil Caron. He says that after conducting some student surveys, "it came down to the fact that they just wanted something to do. They consider sitting on the bus to be a waste of time."

Unlike most NMI projects, which work within the WAGZone, the MMBus wireless application actually places the server on the bus itself. "This is a server which resides on the bus and spits out content to users' PDAs on a bus via an access point," Caron explains. "What makes this project unique is that we are tailoring the content specifically for bus riders." Available content includes MP3s of local bands, sports clips, local weather updates, and games. "We supply content that is quick, exciting, and easy to read," says Caron, "so it can occupy that five-minute bus ride otherwise spent reading the newspaper or twiddling your thumbs."

Despite these intriguing student-generated prototypes and others, missing from the NMI's equation are the non-academic realities of profit motive and the marketplace. Dollars-and-cents questions remain, such as: what mechanisms will be used to charge the end-user for mobile media, how much will users be willing to pay, and what mechanisms will be used to reimburse content providers?

But maybe it isn't fair to ask these questions (and place these restrictions upon the creativity) of students playing with technology's potential. That may well be the job of adult consortium members like Len Emmick, VP of sales for Air2Web, who has found the students' ideas quite valuable. His association with the NMI has allowed him to "validate some of my own beliefs about emerging interests in wireless technology," he says. For now, he seems willing to just stand back and watch the students play. They are the future after all.