Please enable Java in your browser's "Options" (or "Preferance") menu to view this page

Let your car do the walking

Mobile yellow-pages system could help with hotels and restaurants

by Tim Hornyak


Professor Ahmed Elhakeem's latest brainchild is further proof that necessity is the mother of invention. Searching for a hotel late one night during a 1991 road trip in New Jersey with his family, Elhakeem kept running into "No vacancy" signs. As his children began crying and his frustration grew, Elhakeem envisioned a radio-messaging system with which his car could automatically receive directions to nearby hotels with vacancies.

Eight years later, Elhakeem, a professor of telecommunications in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is now trying to drum up some funding for his idea, which he has dubbed "Mobile Yellow Pages Messaging and Retrieval," or MYMAR.

"It's basically an advertisement-driven kind of local Internet," said the Egyptian-born Elhakeem, who also serves as the communications chair of the Montreal session of the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. "Let's say you drive to Washington, D.C. You don't need information about Russia or China, like on the global Internet. You need a smaller version of the Internet for local information."

That local information would take the form of advertisements and maps pointing motorists to nearby restaurants, hospitals, shops and other street-side purveyors of goods or services. The system's advantage over commercial or roadside signs is that advertisers would broadcast their ads and global-positioning-system (GPS) co-ordinates over a radius of up to 60 km, so drivers would not have to actually see a fast-food outlet down the street in order to find it.

While he has yet to build a working prototype, Elhakeem says MYMAR would consist of a series of decentralized "nodes," or building-mounted antennae, that would transmit radio signals to car transceivers, which would then relay data to the driver and passengers via a simple, unobtrusive graphic display. The car-based units would continually receive and sort through the signals, and motorists would use voice commands to select products or services of interest.

"You are driving along, and you see the map on the screen, while all kinds of information is received in real time," Elhakeem said. "You don't have to punch keys or browse with a mouse, you just say, 'Please find me the nearest hotel.' The query goes inside the database, finds the nearest hotel, and feeds the information back to the screen."

With MYMAR, motorists wouldn't have to telephone for directions to the next gas station or stop at a phone booth and leaf through a directory to find the closest pharmacy. One of the best selling points of Elhakeem's MYMAR design is its planned cost to drivers. If advertisers, who would be their own carriers in the network, could absorb the capital cost of transmitters and receivers along with car manufacturers, Elhakeem said, the new medium could be service-charge free, unlike cellular phones, pagers or the Internet.

MYMAR would also be different from digital radio, a new technology that will feature ads or music videos on a dashboard screen, but broadcast only from radio stations. Cars such as the Mercedes 2000-series sport optional cockpit screens with GPS-oriented mapping, but require users to change an onboard map CD according to where they travel. In addition, MYMAR users could access the World Wide Web, making the system more than a one-way, passive medium; hence the "messaging" part of its acronym.

"It's also a complete communications system. You could transmit short messages, voice or data. For example, you could page your daughter's car through the system, telling her you're at home," Elhakeem said. Although radio- frequency bandwidth has been squeezed in recent years with the advent of new communications devices such as pagers, Elhakeem says "unlicensed band" frequencies once reserved for microwave transmission were recently liberated by the federal government, and are fair game for a number of applications, as they are only loosely regulated by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission.

Turning Elhakeem's theoretical designs into a working medium, however, won't be easy. He is now fishing for funding for the project from Ottawa's Communications Research Centre as well as a number of private companies, which he believes are essential to get the ball rolling and a prototype out before the research gets bogged down with requirements such as compatibility with cellular-phone standards. A prototype would take about $100,000 and a small team of technicians working over a year, according to his estimates.

"R & D is one thing, and manufacturing and deployment is something else. Deployment has to start smart and fast, and be application-driven," Elhakeem said. "People want a prototype. It will be sophisticated, but not impossible. It's like your car now. If you showed your car to your great-great-great-grandfather, he would not understand it, because it's a collection of small ideas. Just like when you put the ideas of my system together, it will make a good device."

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.