By Bill Steele

Been on a tour lately? Maybe you had to wait until the next tour group was scheduled, and then found yourself being hustled from one stop to the next. Or maybe you followed a guidebook that didn't begin to answer all your questions. New technology being developed at Cornell has turned small, portable computers, called personal digital assistants (PDAs), into guides, giving visitors a wealth of information cued to locations on a tour.

Two variations of the system currently are being tested by students working in the Human-Computer Interaction Group headed by Geri Gay, Cornell professor of communications and information science. One version, using infrared beacons, is being tried out in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art on campus and soon will be tested at the Field Museum in Chicago and Kew Gardens outside London. Another, using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite location, is being offered as an option for outdoor tours of the Cornell campus by prospective students in the College of Engineering.

The systems were developed by Kiyo Kubo '02 and Jenna Burrell '01. Nick Farina '02 joined the team this year. Graduate student Michael Stefanone also is working on the museum project.

At the Johnson Museum, where the tour project has been dubbed Muse, tiny infrared beacons are placed beside each exhibit. When the visitor points the PDA "guide" at the exhibit, the beacon identifies the location and the PDA downloads appropriate information from a wireless network. The download can include multimedia material, even streaming audio and video, as well as text. For example, visitors viewing a statue of the Aizen Myo-o, a six-armed Japanese god of love, can read about the place of the god in the pantheon, find information on related gods and view other depictions of the same god, along with information about the particular sculpture they are seeing. There also is a picture of the sculpture with clickable hot spots: "Click on one of his right hands and it will tell you what he's holding," explained Farina. The outdoor tour, called CampusAware, uses PDAs to access information from GPS satellites that report the user's location to within about 20 feet. In this case, tour information is preloaded, enabling the device to display information about nearby campus buildings and landmarks.

"When you get about 20 feet from the statue of Ezra Cornell, the computer will tell you about the statue," Farina explained. For buildings, he added, the information zone is a rectangle extending out on all sides of the building.

Both systems include a sort of virtual guestbook. A visitor can enter comments linked to any site on the tour, which are then reviewed for appropriateness and posted for future visitors to see. "One person left a note on where to find a good bathroom in Malott Hall," said Farina. Visitors also can use an infrared link to download information into their own PDAs to take home. CampusAware is supported by Intel Corp. and Palm Inc. Muse is supported by an anonymous donor.