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eLens: A digital take on the streets where we live

A walk down the street may someday be as rich with information as the web, thanks to the emergence of location-aware technology.

Not surprisingly, MIT is at the vanguard of this movement with a project called Electronic Lens (eLens), an initiative of the MIT Media Lab. Headed by William Mitchell and Federico Casalegno, eLens is defined by its focus on benefits for local citizens.

Several research and commercial projects are also exploring the potential of location-aware services. Most rely on a tagging system - for example, physical tags attached to buildings - that can then be scanned and read by mobile camera phones.

eLens is exploring the next wave of communications technology - building interactions that depend on where you are and what you want to know or say. In the eLens team's vision, you could aim your mobile phone at your child's school and start a voice thread to discuss cuts in after-school programs. Or you could let passersby know that the local folk music club serves great vegetarian meals.

The project began with a metaphor, that of an electronic lens that can be aimed at civic institutions and a "viewfinder" that makes these institutions more transparent. Pointing eLens at a train station, for example, might let you retrieve the day's schedule for different tracks. Pointing it at a museum might list current exhibits and upcoming lectures.

Real-time access to location-based data can be very useful, but Casalegno notes that eLens has been designed to do more than deliver a one-way stream of official information. It's designed to encourage innovation in how institutions deliver services and communicate with their constituents. Citizens are expected to actively join in the conversation.

From classroom to field trial

The eLens project has run as a design workshop for two semesters, tapping students from the MIT School of Architecture, Sloan School and Media Lab, as well as from the Harvard School of Design. In the first semester, three groups investigated options for communications, services and technology. Each group looked at what was already available and then held brainstorming sessions. In the second semester, the students rolled up their sleeves to build and test the eLens prototype.

This April, in collaboration with the government of Catalonia, the eLens team conducted its first field trial in Manresa, Spain. The team asked 18 local high school students - from architecture, civics and information technology courses - to post information about three tourist routes in Manresa. These routes were based on three architectural periods: medieval, baroque and modern. The students posted official information and also recorded their own impressions about the buildings. The idea was to match institutional information with the experiences of local citizens.

The field trial achieved its goal of proving that eLens is a viable concept. While the team is still analyzing the results of the field trial, it is also planning for wider deployment and further testing.

For more information about eLens, visit

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