Nag yourself in a new way

Imagine you are driving home from downtown and as you stop at Franklin & Blaisdell for the traffic light, your cell phone beeps.

It's you on the other end.

"Hi, it's me," you hear yourself say. "Don't forget to pick up milk and eggs at the Wedge."

You've been rung up by Place Mail, a sort of wireless, location-sensitive, to-do list. Fulton resident Pam Ludford is developing the technology for cell phones equipped with a GPS (global positioning system) device.

GPS-enabled cell phones are now mostly a curiosity, Ludford said. However, such technological obscurities have a way of worming themselves into everyday life, which is why researchers are already working on applications.

Place Mail stores the latitude and longitude coordinates of the users' favorite spots - Washburn Library, Bayer's Hardware, Discount Video or the Wedge - into the cell phone's memory. The user also programs in location-specific reminder notes.

When the user passes within a half-mile radius of a store on the to-do list, the cell phone beeps and delivers the customized text message or verbal reminder: "Get Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," or "Buy rope caulk."

Ludford is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the University of Minnesota. She started writing the Place Mail software code in June; it's up to about 5,000 lines. She expects to have prototype Place Mail phones ready by mid-May and is looking for at least 30 Southwest residents for a four-week trial to help test it to see what works.

A boring class

Ludford worked in a Northwest Airlines' database group for 10 years, she said. It is typically a male-dominated field, but seven of the eight employees in her group were women, including her manager. The crew helped her gain a lot of confidence, she said.

She began a part-time computer science master's degree program at the University of Minnesota. As she finished in 2002, she took a class on human-computer interactions. She said she expected "the most boring class ever."

Ludford read an article with the sleepy title: "Location-Aware Information Delivery with comMotion." The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Natalia Marmasse wrote it - the first stab at what Ludford now calls Place Mail.

Marmasse's work started before cell phones had built-in GPS systems. The equipment was clunky; Ludford refers to it as "big metal boxes wired together."

Marmasse didn't pursue the idea. The idea intrigued Ludford, a paper-and-pencil organizer who keeps lists for home projects, shopping and work. Her lists aren't always where she needs them, she said.

She told her sister-in-law Cathy Ludford about the MIT paper, and Cathy told Pam she should pursue it herself. "At the time, I said, 'Are you crazy?'" Pam Ludford said.

Ludford started her Ph.D. program in 2003. Place Mail is her thesis project.

"I think it is something I personally would use," she said.

The wireless Post-It

Prof. Loren Turveen of Linden Hills taught the computer-human interaction class that piqued Ludford's Place Mail interest. He is now her research advisor.

He said the scope of Ludford's field trial is the exception rather than the rule.

Turveen said people do all kinds of things to remind themselves about information. Personally, he puts Post-it notes on the refrigerator, writes notes on his hand, stuffs messages in his wallet and e-mails himself reminders, he said. (If he can't get to the e-mailed task right away, he resends the exact same message to himself so it doesn't get buried in his inbox.)

Other people leave stuff in front of the door at night so they will trip over it come morning and remember to take it with them, he said.

"Pam is playing in that space," Turveen said. "She is trying to figure out how is it that people can remind themselves of information through this new technology. It can be challenging to get the new technology right - to get it to fit in with how people actually live their lives."

The Southwest test run

Ludford said she expects to have the Place Mail software bugs ironed out soon, and hopes to start trials by late May.

Testing it on Southwest residents offers several advantages. She, Turveen and research team member Ken Reily all live in Southwest. Team members would be close by to troubleshoot technical problems, Ludford said.

They want to work with people 25 and older who consider themselves "super busy," with demanding careers and households. (Place Mail also has an appointment feature, so people can have their phone call them with reminders about dentist appointments and key business meetings.)

Participants will get free use of a Motorola I88S. (No international calls and a limited number of in-country minutes.)

She calls the Motorola "an ugly phone" with a key advantage: Its GPS antenna is stronger than the ones in the newer flip-up cell phones - an important feature if you want your GPS to read its location even if it is buried in a purse or backpack.

The phones use the Nextel service plan - because Nextel is the only provider that allows outside programmers such as Ludford to add software.

Ludford said she wants to learn for what types of places people find Place Mail helpful, and which ones became a bother. Is the half-mile radius the right distance to trigger a reminder call, or does it need to be larger or smaller? What new and creative ways do people use Place Mail that she hasn't thought of?

Future applications could include networking Place Mail between family members' cell phones, she said. One family member could type in "Buy milk" under the Kowalski's link and any family member who drives by the designated Kowalski's would get the message.

For now, Ludford wants to publish a paper on her research and finish her Ph.D. in a year and a half.

She has no patent yet, though she has looked into it. To file, she needs a finished product first, she said.

Asked about potential Place Mail profit, she said: "My primary interest is mostly scientific."

Those interested in participating should contact Ludford at placemail@cs.umn.edu or call 363-8480.