Blue phone meets BlackBerry

Thanks to a group of Yale electrical engineering students, Blackberry users at Yale may soon be able to carry campus security blue phones in their pockets.

The group is getting ready to launch a free Smartphone application called BScope Mobile, which uses state-of-the-art intelligence technology to interpret raw GPS data, enabling Blackberries to send messages and to communicate locations without explicit commands from the user. Set to officially release on March 6 at bscope.eng.yale.edu, the embedded intelligence technology has been designed to interpret complex human behaviors to enhance security and simplify the lives of students on campus, developers said.

“The Blackberry is supposed to automatically make intelligent inferences about what you’re doing,” said Simon Tao ’09, one of the developers.

Tao said although many GPS tracking services for Blackberries and iPhones already exist, BScope is unique because of the way it uses GPS data to trigger the transmittance of automated messages.

One of the major features of the application — the virtual escort — tracks users as they make their way to a predetermined destination. Progress messages are sent to specified phone numbers along the way, notifying friends and family of the user’s location.

“The goal is to have a lot more messaging behind the scenes,” Tao explained. “You set the message, forget about it and go along with your life. The phone takes care of the rest.”

The idea for the application originated two years ago, when Anna Yu ’08 began looking for an alternative to available escort services. As a Yalie who frequented Bass Library until the wee hours of the morning, Yu said that she often worried about walking home alone at 2 a.m.

“I noticed a lot of people weren’t taking advantage of security escort services,” Yu said, adding that obtaining a ride or escort was often too complicated or too time-consuming for most students to bother with.

It was from these late-night musings that Yu’s senior project was born: developing a system that would create virtual escorts for students directly on their phone. In collaboration with the Behavior Scope Project at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science, Yu was able to create a “comprehensive system to help students stay safer on campus,” she said.

This year, two current Yale seniors adopted Yu’s project and added their own twist to it. Tao and Kyle Gong ’09 expanded the application’s function beyond Yu’s focus on security to include more social features.

For instance, while Yu’s virtual escort service allowed others to track a user’s location, the expanded application also works the other way around. Users can leave notes that appear on their friends’ phones when the friends reach a specified area.

“If you’re outside Yorkside and wanted to leave a note saying ‘The pizza was horrible tonight!’ ” Tao said, “the next time someone walks by, they’ll get the notification and your note will pop up.”

And the application is even a boon for the absentminded.

Thiago Teixeira GRD ’11, who was involved in the research behind BScope, said the application allows you to set an alarm, specifying both time and location triggers, so that when you walk by, say, Gourmet Heaven later that afternoon, a notification will pop up reminding you to purchase milk.

“The key idea is to configure the phone to use GPS sensors to understand what you’re doing,” said Andreas Savvides, an electrical engineering and computer science associate professor and the supervisor of development for the application. “It communicates without the user explicitly typing anything.”

But despite the expanded palette of features, security remains a major focus of the application.

In fact, the application also features a panic button that, when pressed, sends details of the user’s location to a preset number. Although Yale Security is not directly working with the application at this time, Savvides said, preliminary discussions of possible cooperation are in the works. In the mean time, he said, students can simply set their preferences to call Yale Security when the panic button is activated.

“There’s a lot of potential, especially for grad students further from campus where there’s less active security,” Gong said of application.

Students surveyed on campus expressed mixed reactions to the application. Although many Blackberry users said they would be willing to try it, others expressed concern that allowing the phone to interpret behavior might be more of a hassle than a convenience.

“I think there would be a lot of potential for false alarms,” Olivia Rogan ’12 said. “If people change their minds or meet up with friends, things could get complicated.”

Vladimir Chituc ’12 said he thinks the application would be detrimental to personal privacy. “Tell Big Brother to get off our backs!” he added.

But developers said the application has been designed so that the user has full control over who can receive information about his or her whereabouts.

“We were just hoping to implement some useful features that people in real life would like to use,” Tao said.

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