Using Pictures To Determine Your Location?

Microsoft has 750 researchers worldwide engaging in skunk works-type of blue sky research, just looking for good ideas. Despite accusations that the company doesn’t invent things anymore, it seems like they are actually very active. The accusation should be: “Do they invent anything useful, and do the inventions make it to market?” I imagine some probably do, but I’ll leave that for Redmond to argue. A recent Reuters story covered Tuesday’s TechFest Fair, where MSFT researchers showed off their latest ideas. In one idea, a lost person could get a map of their location by snapping a picture of a nearby building with a camera phone, and uploading the picture to a server. The server would do a recognition match for the building, lookup the coordinates, determine their location, and deliver a local map back to the phone. MSFT has trialed the idea by uploading millions of photos of Seattle to the server. Geez, what a waste! Somebody tell these guys that 99% of US phones are shipping with GPS today! A complicated system using photos is redundant, expensive, error-prone, and slower than the existing A-GPS.

Ironically, just before I wrote this post, my wife asked me, “Is there a way I can go into my contacts in Outlook, and click on a “show map” button for one of my contacts?” The answer is actually, “Yes” but it’s buried so far in sub-menus that most people don’t know about it. (click “Read More” to learn how.) It’s frustrating that Microsoft sometimes makes the costly and redundant easy, while making the intuitive and useful difficult.

So you wanna look up maps from your Outlook Contacts list? Select the contact, open it (as if to edit), click on the Actions menu, and choose Display Map. That will take you to MSFT Live Search, and an AJAX-based map with some useful tools. You would think Microsoft would make it easier, since it can drive more traffic to their web properties.

BTW, I know the science of what the researchers are doing is interesting, and the "building recognition" may be useful in other ways. But the researchers should have some responsibility to relate their ideas to actual real world uses, not just technology for technology's sake. If I were funding that research, I'd want each labcoat to give me a top 3 list of the ways his idea could be realistically deployed. You wouldn't have to be right in 5 years, but it would have to make sense today. Here's a couple:

1) Public safety could match buildings to addresses, so firemen would know what the building their rushing to looks like before they get there, because it's displayed in a LCD screen in the fire truck. (the LCD could display all known data about the building). MSFT matches the address to the images, and provides the images for display.

2) For driving directions on, they could provide a photo of the destination address, so that you can recognize it more safely than checking for small address numbers.

3) For photo organizing sites like shutterbug, etc, the MSFT service could match your photos to the locations they were taken, and automatically tag them with meta information.

OK, that's three, and I've been thinking about it for 2 minutes. I may be smart, but the MSFT labcoats are surely smarter. So get some realistic ideas, already!

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Comments on “Using Pictures To Determine Your Location?”

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jason galanis says:

geography and microsoft

microsoft has numerous initiatives that include all aspect of geography and geospatial information. in fact, they have filed many patents in the last two to three years on the subject, as well as published several papers. they are very active in the area. not sure they can actually use the system that uses physical attributes to indentify a location without running afoul of prior patents, however. one in particularl is US Patent 5,930,474.

1. A system which associates on-line information with geographic areas, said system comprising:

a computer network wherein a plurality of computers have access to said computer network; and
an organizer executing in said computer network, wherein said organizer is configured to receive search requests from any one of said plurality of computers, said organizer comprising:
a database of information organized into a hierarchy of geographical areas wherein entries corresponding to each one of said hierarchy of geographical areas is further organized into topics; and
a search engine in communication with said database, said search engine configured to search geographically and topically, said search engine further configured to elect one of said hierarchy of geographical areas prior to selection of a topic so as to provide a geographical search area wherein within said hierarchy of geographical areas at least one of said entries associated with a border geographical area is dynamically replicated into at least o e narrower geographical area, said search engine further configure to search said topics within said selected geographical search area.

below are two extracts from that patent, one that specifically addresses ‘physical attributes’ of a location.

17. The system of claim 1, wherein at least one of said entries corresponding to said geographical search area is primarily related by association with physical attributes within said geographical search area.

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