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Chang Making Access to Online Information Far More Transparent

2/24/2011 10:29:00 AM Jenny Applequist, Coordinated Science Laboratory

Today, if you're thinking about having lunch at the Bombay Grill restaurant in Champaign, Illinois and are hunched over your laptop trying to learn about the restaurant's menu, prices, and reputation, it'll take you a few minutes of effort to sift through search engine results looking for relevant information. As soon as a year from now, computer science professor Kevin Chang's work could be making that task faster and far simpler for you. That's the vision of his Augmented Reality Information Search Engine (ARISE) project's efforts to seamlessly "mash up" the real world and the virtual world of the Internet, bridging the divide between the physical world around us and the Internet's vast collection of information about that physical world.

Illinois computer science professor Kevin Chang
Illinois computer science professor Kevin Chang
Illinois computer science professor Kevin Chang

The ARISE project is funded by the Advanced Digital Sciences Center (ADSC), a research center led by faculty from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research. Kevin Chang is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Illinois.

Chang observes that right now, our experiences of the physical world and the Internet are largely separate from each other. Suppose you are introduced to Professor Chang and want to learn more about his work. "You go home and sit down in front of your computer and open your browser. If you want to look for the Kevin Chang you just met today, you search for 'Kevin Chang,' and unfortunately this is a common name; you'll find at least five different Kevin Changs just in computer science! So now you have to determine which pages are actually about the Kevin Chang you just met."

Furthermore, your information needs may not be satisfied simply by finding one or two major sources of information on him, such as his official home page. Perhaps you'd also like to see the web pages of his former students, information on where he's going to present talks, or copies of his publications posted in digital libraries. Such information could be scattered across many sites around the Web.

At heart, the problem is that in the real world you may know of a single entity, such as a particular restaurant called "Bombay Grill" or a particular person called "Kevin Chang," but the information available on the Internet is not currently mapped to those real-world entities. Instead, search engines like Google force users to handle the Internet's content in a page-by-page manner, potentially requiring users to visit large numbers of separate sites in order to gather enough information on the entity they want to learn about.

As Prof. Chang explains, "the real question is, we are living in the real world: how can you find information in the way you see the real world, without having to go through the laborious work of collecting and disambiguating knowledge? Basically, we're dealing with reorganizing the whole Web!"

The main goal he wants to achieve with ARISE is a database of entities that we see in the real world, compiled from the huge collection of pages available on the Internet.

The first step will be an "entity search" process that reviews the millions of web pages that exist and determines which ones actually refer to, for example, Kevin Chang or the Bombay Grill -- and not just any Kevin Chang or Bombay Grill, but particular Kevin Changs or Bombay Grills that are understood to be different entities despite having the same names. This process will start by seeking out directories, such as lists of faculty or listings of local restaurants. Such databases will be used as a starting point for anchoring the content on the web. Additional searching will then identify additional content that may be much more interesting -- such as restaurant customer reviews -- and apply ways to determine, with a certain level of confidence, whether a particular page actually contains a reference to the particular instance of Kevin Chang or Bombay Grill that is being sought.

Second, once the relevant information has been located, it must be integrated together in some way that makes it easy to review. The information may come from a wide variety of different websites, may be written in different ways, and may be talking only about certain aspects of the real-world entity of interest. The ARISE project is looking at ways to organize large amounts of material into a database that will serve as an "enabling layer," grouping relevant material in useful ways. For example, restaurant information could, in effect, be organized as a table with columns for "price," "menu," "parking," "user ratings," and other interesting attributes of restaurants. Users could then choose which type of information is desired to view results that are specific to their needs.

"The amount of information that is available is overwhelming," says Chang, "and it is not going to decrease; we are going to produce more and more. With the growth of technology we are taking more pictures, doing more recordings. So we really want to help users by making this information more organized." He anticipates that the ARISE technology will be most useful when used with mobile devices by users who are "on the go," leveraging the information available on the Internet to facilitate real-world experiences. For example, users could use the system to comparison-shop while standing in a bricks-and-mortar store, by checking product reviews or competitors' prices.

The work has already been demonstrated in prototype form, and Chang expects that the first commercial applications will be available within one to three years.

The ARISE project at ADSC is co-led by Prof. Chang, who is the founder of Cazoodle Inc. as well as a faculty member at Illinois, and Dr. Hady W. Lauw, a Senior Research Engineer at Singapore's Institute for Infocomm Research and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Singapore Management University.