Bringing Ambient Computing out of the Labs - INRIA's Agreement with JCDecaux

by Michel Banâtre

INRIA and the JCDecaux group, a worldwide leader in street furniture, recently signed a technology transfer agreement. This may come as a surprise, since this group's business areas make it an unusual partner for INRIA. Nevertheless, the agreement fits well with the research on ambient computing being carried out by INRIA's ACES (ambient computing and embedded systems) research team.

ACES became involved in this exciting area in 1998, working on Spontaneous Information Systems (SIS). Our SIS research involved dynamic information systems shared by proximal mobile devices that communicate through short-range radio transmission. This led to our groundbreaking work on ambient computing, which in turn led to the development and study of a variety of novel concepts, including 'spatial computing'. In this kind of architecture, physical objects are data symbols and physical space is the basis for addressing. In other words, such an architecture supports implicit computation using the flow of data from the physical motion of the associated objects. When we proposed such concepts, there were already 'popular' solutions in the 'Ubicomp' community. Essentially they were based on 'logically centralized' approaches, built around information systems independent of the physical environment. Such concepts have only very recently emerged as relevant focus areas, thanks to the growing interest in sensor-related themes (electronic labels, sensor networks, smart dust etc).

It is important to note that despite the wealth of new ideas generated since 2000, there have been no major innovations resulting in core applications or widespread use. In other words, ambient computing hasn't left the lab. Overcoming this is a real challenge, and one that the ACES project team wanted to tackle. Our approach, which has already been used successfully several times in the past, is to "go the distance", as we did recently with Texas Instruments. This is even more critical in the domain of ambient computing, which in essence is based on information technology that is tightly coupled with the real world. If we ignore this aspect of ambient computing, we will overlook the real challenges, the very ones we must address to ensure the emergence and application of our ideas as researchers. That's why we've had numerous discussions, productive to varying degrees, with a broad range of enterprises, including equipment makers, mobile telephony operators and end users. Although these discussions did not lead to actual collaboration, they allowed us to identify and understand what was preventing ambient computing from taking hold in these enterprises. As is often the case with innovation, it isn't so much the technical difficulties that block progress, but rather the challenge of identifying the 'missing piece'.

The bottom line is that integrating 'context awareness' into mobile terminals is still very difficult. Even though it seems simple from a technical perspective, there are numerous unavoidable obstacles, not least of which is negotiating agreements between the various partners on wireless standards (Bluetooth, RFID, IR etc) and software. The situation is complicated by the current absence of an application that will bring the players together and motivate them to overcome the obstacles they face.

There exists an alternative however, which is the natural outgrowth of our proposed spatial machine and involves integrating context awareness into the environment. This approach has been tested since 2001 at INRIA Rennes with the 'WebWalker' application, which among other things allows users to move physically through the Web. With this technology, the challenge of producing an effect is linked to the quality and quantity of the sites encountered.

Within this context, street furniture represents a very attractive vector. The question of computing aside, street furniture is already at the centre of an environment-based information system, tied to transport, tourism, events and maps/directions, not to mention advertising. Such an information system, built around physical objects, is particularly well suited to the application of our solutions, which are also based on spatial distribution and management of information.

Currently three large global groups - ClearChannel, Viacom and JCDecaux - are the main players tapping into this application domain. It was during 'Les Transports au XXIième Siècle' - an event organized by the French Senate in April 2004 around the theme of transport in the 21st century - that JCDecaux learnt of our research, from a presentation about our 'Ubibus' system.

Integrating 'context awareness' into the environment has been tested since 2001 at INRIA Rennes with the 'WebWalker' application, which among other things allows context-driven navigation as the user moves.
Integrating 'context awareness' into the environment has been tested since 2001 at INRIA Rennes with the 'WebWalker' application, which among other things allows context-driven navigation as the user moves.

From the underlying principles alone, and in light of existing technology, JCDecaux immediately saw how they could benefit from our ambient computing solutions. However, convincing the group to formally adopt these solutions required significant effort on our part, not only from a technical perspective (creation and demonstration of pilots for real-world situations, evaluation of performance and development of extensibility) but also in terms of financial criteria (costs of deployment and exploitation, long-term survivability). One of JCDecaux's concerns is the 'intrusiveness' of the implicit way in which ambient computing systems function. This could meet resistance from the public, and that would represent a real problem for a group whose revenues come mainly from advertising. Our expertise and broad perspective on these problems as well as the relevance of our solutions have all been critical factors in JCDecaux's decision to work with us. We have also taken the important step of obtaining patents to protect certain core aspects of our solutions.


Please contact:
Michel Banâtre, INRIA Rennes - Irisa
Tel : +33 2 99 84 72 85