In his spare time, a program manager builds an application that lets his family track his whereabouts over the Internet. The cell phone app showcases Microsoft technology.
By Laurie Rowell
What do you do in your spare time? Over a four-week span, Nagi Babu Punyamurthula built an application that turned his cell phone into a beacon that beams his location to an Internet map.
“I can upload my GPS position to my server, and my family can go to the Web page map to see where I am,” said Punyamurthula. Matching the clear simplicity of the concept, he named the application Where Am I. He envisions families using it to keep in touch with a parent or child or rescue workers using it to find lost or missing persons. Future iterations will turn phones into social networking devices and display nearby points of interest such as restaurants, gas stations, ATMs, and parks.
What started out as a hobby project quickly grew in scope, and now Punyamurthula hopes to make it a Windows Live service.
“I spend three to four hours at night, every night, on it,” said Punyamurthula, who tinkers with robots and artificial-intelligence for kicks.
Punyamurthula works as a program manager in the Global ISV group, which pushes adoption of Microsoft technologies. “I think my biggest goal is to showcase how Microsoft technologies can come together as a proof of concept,” he says. Where Am I does that by incorporating several technologies: Virtual Earth, Windows Mobile, ASP.Net, Windows Server, SQL Server, the dev tools in Visual Studio, and the .NET Speech API (both the recognition engine and synthesis engine).
Many Possible Uses
Integrating speech synthesis brings the application off the desktop and into the home. For example, a virtual voice announces from a home speaker that Dad, for instance, is five miles from home and nearing a grocery store or a restaurant.
Meanwhile, as he drives, the map representing his whereabouts updates dynamically, leaving a record of his path.
“I call this the breadcrumb trail,” said Mike Skovrinskie, a technical account manager for Microsoft Premier Service group who is dogfooding the application. “This is useful for tracking outdoor activities like hiking, biking, and jogging. I could also use that [function] to log my work travels during the week, so I can see a simple representation ... for filing expenses.”
Gov Maharaj, an SDE/T in Fundamentals Test and a volunteer tester, sees a possible marketing application for Where Am I.
“Let’s say you subscribe to an ‘I want the next Zune’ feed,” Maharaj suggested. “Stores could put the inventory online, and you could subscribe based on store location, so that if you happened to move into a zone that had Zunes in stock, you could be notified via [Where Am I].”
Punyamurthula seems to gravitiate more toward safety-oriented or collaborative uses. For example, Where Am I could help in emergencies, since people who call 911 sometimes have trouble explaining their location.
“The system can alert the police station and tell them your coordinates,” Punyamurthula said. The upload of coordinates could be automatic during a 911 call, so emergency services would know exactly where to find someone in trouble.
Of course, not everyone wants his location known. Providing privacy safeguards – for example, requiring users to log in through .NET Passport accounts – is something else Punyamurthula considered.
“This is a simple and powerful technology – so powerful that it makes you step back and think about privacy and tracking the first time you see your picture pinned on a map,” Skovrinskie said. “Even once we have authentication and privacy built in, you still think about how mobile electronics enable potential consumer benefits, at the cost of reduced privacy. Traditionally, we haven’t thought of location as a key privacy fact.”
Taking an Idea to the Next Level with Management Support
Social-networking capabilities would be a great feature of Where Am I in the future, Punyamurthula said. “If I happen to notice you’re in a five-mile radius, I can give you a call and say, ‘Looks like you’re around here – want to catch up for coffee?’”
Existing competitive applications, such as Locate Networks and Plazes, are more complete than Where Am I, something Punyamurthula readily acknowledges. “Those are commercial-class products. Mine is not a product, it’s a proof of concept. If we were to productize this, I’m sure there are all kinds of things we could add that would totally beat these guys.”
Punyamurthula expressed gratitude to his team’s leaders for encouragement. “My management motivates individuals to think about innovating. Plus, their support was very important in allowing me to build this side project,” he said.
“The challenge is taking the time to pick and choose which of these technologies to build expertise on,” he continued. “That is the fun part of working inside Developer & Platform Evangelism: We get a chance to evangelize to various partners, developers, and customer communities on the latest and greatest technologies. And, when I’m not working, I get to use some of my expertise in fun projects like these.”