Microsoft's A.U.R.A. project - information at your fingertips

I got to take a look at A.U.R.A, a project from Microsoft Research that uses bar code scanning technology and the web to put information in the hands of customers. Using a mobile phone to capture images, A.U.R.A. deciphers the bar code and then pulls down information about the product. It's an interesting technology that has some RIA implications.

Microsoft Aura

Normally a device running on a mobile phone that uses a mobile web browser as its primary delivery method wouldn't fall into the realm of things I cover. But Microsoft sent me a Smartphone to play with (I didn't keep it, it was just a review phone) and so that I could check out A.U.R.A. , a project out of Microsoft Research that aims to "annotate the planet". The reason I was interested in checking out was two fold. One, I see a big benefit of RIAs as being able to run on multiple devices but I don't get to delve into the mobile world much. Second, I thought the idea of having a wealth of targeted information at your fingertips was something too good to pass up. In the end I came away impressed by A.U.R.A. not so much for what it is but what it could mean for RIA developers.

The actual A.U.R.A. application is a bar code reader that uses the built in camera on most phones to take a snapshot of the bar code and then decipher what it is. By default from the application you can then look up the item on Amazon (using the mobile web interface) and find out price information about it. Additionally, you can share it on the Microsoft Research site and save it for later. But one of the interesting features is that Aura allows you to create your own "RSDF" (Resolution Service Definition File) files that can pull in other data. For instance instead of looking up price information on Amazon after scanning a barcode, I could look up whether or not that item had a CNet review and if so, display that on the screen. One current use case is, something put together by a professor at UC Irvine, Bill Tomlinson, that brings back environmental data on an item. So you can scan a book and the application tells you how much electricity was used to create it and what chemicals were used to make it.

Creating the RSDF ("Resolution Service Definition File") is pretty straight forward. It's simply an XML schema created by Microsoft that establishes name-value pairs (there is a word document with some detailed information). The Resolver file acts as a pointer to a web destination and handles the barcode validation and passing the barcode to the web application. From there you can return any piece of information you want.

To me this is an example of why the web is so great and why the browser is so limiting. Being able to interact with objects around us and then pull in a wide variety of data about the object puts a lot of power in the hands of the customer. But while information is great, if it's presented in such a way that makes it difficult to understand and process, then the full benefit isn't being met. The web browser may be universal, but on a small mobile screen with text and rudimentary graphics it isn't the best way to present data. Much more effective would be a mobile RIA that could display charts, graphs and images in a way that provides valuable information.

I hope the A.U.R.A. project sees the light of day but it's very cool to see what Microsoft Research is working on. This has the potential to be a powerful tool for the consumer and developers (as well as stores) that can take advantage of something like this have a huge head start. I can see a broad range of barcode applications that use A.U.R.A. as a starting point and build on its solid foundation. I think this kind of interaction is one in which RIA developers need to take a long hard look.