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 dot life Monday, 27 January, 2003, 17:36 GMT
Let your text messages linger
Mobile phone
Reviews on your mobile - if you want them or not

Got a view on the last film you saw or the last restaurant you ate in? Soon you may be able to post a review outside the front door using your mobile phone.
There must have been times after having a particularly good, or bad, experience at a restaurant that you wanted to leave more than a tip and less than your comments spray painted across the walls of the establishment.

Just recommending it to your friends, or warning them to avoid it, may not feel like you are doing enough.

But soon you could get chance to do much more than just leave with your stomach full and your wallet slightly emptier.

Bristol docks
History is taking on a modern feel in Bristol's docks
Researchers around the world are working on ways to create mid-air messaging systems that let you post or read comments people have left tied to a particular location.

The "mid-air" messages will hang in the air until someone walks past carrying a device, a phone, handheld computer or laptop, capable of receiving them.

The idea is comments, dialogue or review can be tied to a shop, restaurant, exhibit in a museum or anything that can be identified.

Sailing enthusiasts could even use the mid-air messaging systems to warn fellow sailors about shifting sandbanks or other dangers.

NY waterfront
Waterfront tours in New York use mid-air messaging

One of the bigger mid-air messaging projects is taking place in Bristol and has just received a grant from the government to fund its development.

Phil Stenton, a senior researcher at Hewlett-Packard's lab in Bristol, says the current scheme grew out of earlier work on a project called Cooltown. This used infra-red beacons along certain routes to beam information to people carrying the right device.

"What we want to be able to do is browse and discover just as you can browse the internet or tune into a radio station."

Bringing history to life

Mr Stenton says the advent of cheap, low-power wireless technologies such as Bluetooth has changed the way the information might be delivered.

One of the first tests of the system will be on Bristol's "slave trail" which traces the city's historical links with the transport and trading of slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Robot at a bar
If the service is a 'bit mechanical' then tell others
As people walk the route of the "slave trail" the mid-air messaging system might mean they are accompanied by sound effects that try to evoke the area's past.

The project could be one of the first to try to augment reality and add an information-rich layer to the world.

Similar schemes are springing up around the world. One in Los Angeles, called 34 North and 118 West, uses a combination of GPS, a laptop and headphones to create an interactive art event that explores local history.

Pinning you down

Another, called Annotate Space, combines mid-air messaging with a walking tour of the Brooklyn waterfront near the Manhattan Bridge in New York.

The Acropolis
Find out more about hidden treasures
There are other projects in Athens and Cardiff that are experimenting with ways for people to get more out of the gadgets they carry around. They will try to resolve some of the difficulties surrounding the mid-air messaging systems.

One of the biggest problems is which "locating system" to use. GPS, which uses signals from satellites, only works well outside and its co-ordinate system only identifies areas down to a few metres in diameter.

Then there is the problem of how to work out which messages to serve up to people as they pass. The software loaded on devices will have to know something about its owner's likes and dislikes so it only gives them notice of the things they are interested in, says Mr Stenton.

"Otherwise you are going to get bombarded with a cacophony of stuff you have to scroll through."

Another problem is deciding who "owns" the air outside a particular business, restaurant, shop or organisation. Any restaurant using the mid-air messaging system is unlikely to be happy with it being co-opted by patrons complaining about poor service.

Each week looks at how technology has changed our lives, and more importantly how we would like to change our lives. Let us know your views, using the form below.

Your comments:

How will the designers stop misleading, malicious or defamatory messages posted by, for example, the manager of the resteraunt across the street? Or are they expecting to spend their profits defending libel actions?
Jon Ashton, UK

I, for one, have no interest in what random members of the public have to say about these things, I have a vision of this just being cluttered with obscenity, spam from competing outlets, irrelevant and drunken comments, etc. It sounds way beyond necessary.
Kelvin, UK

Good idea - depends on the ownership of the network and it's administration - i.e a rival restaurant could post defamatory remarks concerning a rival establishment - in the case of restaurants it would be better working with a website such as Squaremeal or Hardens so that it had an "editorial" factor impartially involved. This could also allow the whole integration with existing content management systems. When used in this way it could also allow efficient data capture allowing data owners to have a database of prospective customers.
Chris Johns, UK

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