Microsoft Research Ready with Aura

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2004-02-12

Microsoft Research Ready with Aura

SAN DIEGO—Microsoft Corp.s Research organization is preparing to publicly release in a few weeks the client application for its Aura research project, a researcher told attendees of the OReilly Emerging Technology Conference here.

Research Sociologist Marc Smith, demonstrating Aura during his keynote presentation, explained that the project uses mobile devices to interact with physical objects to retrieve information about them from the Internet as well as to automatically capture and annotate data from them.

"Aura is all about assuming a number of Web resources exist and then gluing these things together," Smith said, in an interview with "Were pulling pieces out of cyberspace and putting them together."

Microsoft Research, which first created a prototype for Aura in 2000, more recently developed a reference architecture using the Toshiba e740 PocketPC with 802.11 wireless access and an attached Socket CF bar-code reader.

Read more here about Auras development.

Auras current focus is on reading bar codes because of their ubiquity on everyday objects and products. But its design is agnostic to the type of sensor technologies used to interact with objects and could be used with others such as emerging Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, Smith said.

The Aura client, once available, also could run on various combinations of hardware and with other wireless networks besides WiFi, such as cellular networks. Smith, for example, demonstrated a PocketPC equipped with a bar-code reader and connected to Verizon Wireless network.

The upcoming client application does require Microsofts Windows Mobile 2003 or 2002 software for either PocketPC or PocketPC Phone Edition, Smith said. The client will be available here.

Next page: How Aura differs from CueCat.

Remembering CueCat

Smith said the idea of reading information on objects is nothing new. One well-known attempt was the CueCat bar-code scanner. But the Microsoft Aura project differs by focusing on what Smith calls "conversations."

"The CueCat model was Why not harness the wallet?" Smith said. "But our model is Why not harness the swarm?"

These conversations could range from product reviews on popular sites such as Inc. to Weblog postings from a users community of blogs. Consider shopping for a book in a physical store. Equipped with an Aura-enabled handheld, shoppers could scan a specific book and find out what their friends thought of it or even grab suggestions on other books popular among the buyers of the same book.

"All sorts of things have numbers on them, and theres almost always a database with information on them," Smith said, noting the range of bar-coded information from product UPCs to Vehicle Identification Numbers.

Aura does more than trigger information from Web sites and Internet postings. It allows users to automatically post information captured from objects such as from their bar codes.

Data scanned from objects such as a book, for example, could be stored in a private Aura blog, part of an Aura portal Microsoft Research plans to make available soon after the client, Smith said. In their Aura blogs, users could add annotations and comments to the data, then decide whether to post it publicly to further inform cyberspace, Smith said.

"Maybe a swarm of shoppers are annotating objects, and as some become more valuable than others you could subscribe to their object-blog feeds," Smith said.

Aura also is making use of aspects from Smiths other major research project, Netscan, which he brought with him when he joined Microsoft Research. It visualizes and analyzes the patterns of Usenet postings to determine, for example, the behavior of posters. Its ability to data mine large databases of annotations is applicable to Aura, Smith said.

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