Software gives descriptive directions

By Eric Smalley, Technology Research News

Automatically-generated directions for getting from one place to another are a staple of the Internet age, but they rarely include landmarks.

Landmarks, however, are an almost indispensable component of directions. They identify places to turn and provide assurance that you are headed the right way.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are looking to incorporate landmarks into automatically-generated directions using software that models the geographical relationships between spaces and their functions.

The Location Awareness Information Representation software, dubbed Lair, can be used to represent a person's location, what that person is near, and what a person can do at those nearby places. The directions are "similar to those a person would give -- [they] use landmarks to identify places to turn," said Gary Look, a researcher at MIT.

The researchers used the software to produce an application that provides walking directions within the Stata Center, the university's new computer science building. The software could eventually be used to produce many types of intelligent trip planning applications, including one that lists the closest places to carry out an errand, said Look.

The system generates directions from a database of information about places, paths and functional descriptions of the places.

Places can be rooms, buildings, neighborhoods, cities, states, regions or countries. Places have six properties: name, on, star, view, contained and function. The "on" property is a list of paths the place is on. The star property is a geometric description of the intersections of the paths that meet at the place. The view property is a list of other places within sight. The contained property is a list of larger places containing the place in question. The function property is a description of how the place is used and what activities can be done there.

Paths can be roads or hallways. Paths have a name and a row, or a list of places along the path. Place functions have a name and a list of actions that can be performed at the place.

The researchers studied written directions provided by people and determined that indoor walking directions should have certain properties. Walking directions should not use measured distances, compass headings or be limited to "go to" and "turn" instructions. Instead, they should use landmarks to identify turns and verify travel direction, describe the spaces routes pass by or through, use doors as landmarks, and describe hallway intersections.

The system generates a graphical route map, then produces written directions from the map. To derive walking directions from a map, the system groups waypoints into sets that represent segments of a path along the route. The system knows that two paths intersect where two sets share a waypoint, and that in this case a turn is required, according to Look. And because the system models the geometry of intersections -- the star property -- it can determine which direction to turn.

The system uses two rules for describing turns: use phrases like "turn right at the end of the hallway" to indicate points in routes where paths end, and phrases like "when you enter the lobby, turn left" to incorporate landmarks and functional descriptions of intersections.

And it keeps directions short by using the visibility of landmarks to generate "you will see" phrases. This allows it to avoid having to tell the user to walk straight through every intersection that comes before a turn, according to Look. "Landmarks are also used to assure a person is headed in the right direction," he said.

The system indicates when to walk through doors, and includes the functional description of the space on the other side with phrases like "walk through the doorway into the lounge."

It also segments directions into groups based on number of instructions and determines where to split instructions based on geographic similarities. For example, a set of instructions that spans floors could be split to group the instructions by floor.

The researchers have also developed a related tool, the Interactive Simulator for Lair Exploration, that allows users to ask questions about places and routes like "Where am I?", "Describe this place.", "What can I do here?", "How will I know I'm going in the right direction?", "Is place X near place Y?" and "Is place P along my route from X to Y?"

The query tool could be used with handheld computers that track a user's position using indoor equivalents of the Global Positioning System.

The researchers are working to improve the directions-generating system by better understanding how people make decisions based on their surroundings. Their next steps include a formal study of the quality of the system's directions and making it possible to automatically define places and paths from architectural drawings, according to Look.

The method could be used practically in two to five years, said Look.

Look's research colleagues were Buddhika Kottahachchi, Robert Laddaga and Howard Shrobe. The researchers presented the work at the Intelligent User Interfaces conference (IUI'05) held January 9 to 12, 2005 in San Diego, California. The research was funded by the university.

Timeline:   2-5 years
Funding:   University
TRN Categories:  Databases and Information Retrieval; Human-Computer Interaction
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper, "A Location Representation for Generating Descriptive Walking Directions," Intelligent User Interfaces conference (IUI'05), San Diego, California, January 9-12, 2005


February 23/March 2, 2005

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