Pattie Maes and “Just-In-Time Information”

The ASIS&T Wednesday afternoon plenary session was easily as interesting as the talk given by Matthew Szulik on Monday. Pattie Maes is a researcher at MIT who has received, approximately, every award known to mankind. Traditionally, information seeking has been considered a proactive activity – i.e., the user knows what she is looking for, fires up a browser, and keys a few search terms into a text box. The research that she was presenting was an impressive array of projects whose overall goal was to learn about the user and bring relevant information to the user’s attention unobstrusively and without the user actively searching for it. Additionally, there was an aspect of decoupling the user from her desktop computer, allowing her to retrieve information automatically wherever she might be.

For example, the next time you meet someone for the first time and shake that person’s hand, imagine having an earpiece that is capable of telling you the person’s Pattie Maes, who you and that person know in common, and any personal interests or preferences that you share with that person. Alternately, imagine shaking that person’s hand on your fourth face-to-face encounter, and having your “magical earpiece” refresh your memory about recent email correspondence and/or phone conversations with that person. It only got better from there.

Another example given was a college student walking on campus. Suppose that this college student needs a particular textbook for a class. What if this student’s earpiece were able to use GIS to determine the student’s proximity to local bookstores, check the prices for the textbook at each of the stores, and alert the student to which of the stores had the lowest price for that book – possibly even negotiate the purchase with the bookstore computers before she even enters the store? Alternately, suppose the student is browsing in the bookstore and all of the books have RFID tags attached to their dust jackets. What if the earpiece could determine which of the books are likely to be of interest to her, and bring those books to her attention along with their respective reviews and prices?

These are only 2 examples of the sort of thing that Pattie Maes is working on implementing (and has implemented), using various cell phone, GIS, Bluetooth, and RFID technologies. It’s exciting stuff, and watching her presentation – complete with videos of working prototypes – gave me a very “the future is now” sort of feeling. For more space age goodness, check out her presentation [PDF].

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