August 29, 2003

New Program Could Supplement Tours

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“Let me know if I’m walking into anything.”

Even the newest freshman can pick out the potential student tours: a large group of parents and high school students, led by a quick-talking Cornellian walking backwards. But in the future, prospective Cornell students may have an additional way to tour the campus, with the help of a new technology named Campus Aware. Although it has only been tested in the engineering school tours, it may eventually supplement the human tour guides on campus.

Campus Aware consists of a series of palmtop computers connected through a wireless network. Each computer is equipped with “location aware” GPS technology that allows the device to identify its user’s location. As a student walks around campus with Campus Aware, the device will sound an electronic tone and provide location-specific information.

However, what makes Campus Aware unique is that it allows users to leave digital “notes” on scene where they are standing. Later, other visitors can read those notes and add their own, providing multiple perspectives in addition to the official university information. For example, visitors may see notes commenting on the student habit of sledding down Libe Slope, or warning against illegal parking.

“It’s not just what the university wants you to know, it’s what people think,” said Nick Farina ’02, one of the developers of Campus Aware. “I personally value those notes a lot more than guidebook Cornell-sponsored information.”

Visitors can even ask questions and view their answers on the Internet when they return home, since the notes are uploaded to a main database.

Campus Aware itself began as a project within the Communication Department’s Human-Computer Interaction Group (HCIG), which focuses on the social aspects of technology. As undergraduates at Cornell, Farina, Jenna Burrell ’02, and Kiyo Kubo ’02 conceived and designed the device, with the help of Professor Geri Gay, head of the HCIG.

“I thought there might be opportunities there for knowing where you are on campus and giving you information on where you are,” Burrell said. With the addition of the user input feature, the group began their project on donated laptops with wireless cards. To improve mobility and user ease, they later switched to palm-tops.

After testing with fellow communication students, the developers were eager to test the device on visitors. However, the tour organizers for Day Hall believed the black-and-white early palmtops were not adequate for the full campus tours.

“Our main goal here [is] providing the best experience possible for our guests here at Cornell,” said Greg Pratt ’00, staff development. “It was a nascent technology that wasn’t quite ready … for the level of service we try to provide at the university.”

Pratt said that as the technology develops and interactivity increases, the admissions staff will consider further the Campus Aware as an alternative when tours are not available.

Although Day Hall was not interested, Engineering Admissions was, and gave the Campus Aware technology to visitors arriving when tours were not available.

“It’s a great alternative, certainly,” said Chandra Joos, associate director of admissions for engineering. Pointing out another advantage of the device, she noted, “It showcases some of our student projects … [so future students can] see what’s available in terms of facilities.”

During the testing period, about 40 visiting families used the devices, and seemed to react positively.

“For the most part, they were receptive and excited,” Joos said.

Despite a few glitches, the devices appeared to be effective. The average visitor or student left three notes, 74 characters per note, according to Kubo.

If the university does adopt this technology in the future, the largest potential problem may not come from a technological source, but from a human one. Since visitors can write whatever they wish in the notes, they can leave negative or obscene messages.

“With the graffiti option [the notes], one person’s viewpoint … can really offset the opinion of a future student,” Joos said. “I would like to see it eliminated or just limited.”

Although the developers are against censorship, they believe it is necessary and even built the function into the device.

“I think it’s a necessary first step. We weren’t surprised they wanted that,” Farina said. However, he sees free discourse as inevitable, and believes Cornell shouldn’t be concerned about negative feedback. “Basically, Cornell might want to censor things, but they have a great product … so they don’t have much to worry about.”

With or without censorship, the new devices will definitely not replace human guides.

“I think it’s complimentary. It fills the some needs a standard human tour guide can’t fill,” Burrell said.

One current tour guide thinks that the Campus Aware technology would be inferior to human tour guides, but would be helpful in cases where visitors arrived and no tours were available.

“I think in theory, it’s a good idea, [but] in using the technology, it really eliminates the human aspect of Cornell … I think that’s one of the most important aspects of a college,” Beau Brinker ’05 said.

One visiting high school student said that if the technology was available, he would be interested in it.

“Sounds neat. I don’t think it would entirely take the place of an actual guided tour … [but] maybe it could compliment a guided tour,” Bernie Langer said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher