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An eye on downtown merchants?

From The Daily Progress
July 22, 2007

By Brian McNeill

In Kamin Whitehouse’s home, 15 tiny wireless sensors measured his daily use of kitchen appliances, faucets, refrigerator, doors, windows and even the toilet.

His wife eventually made him remove his beloved sensors, but the raw data they compiled precisely measured his routines - allowing him to reduce his home’s energy consumption.

“I believe that the biggest problem facing the world today is energy,” said Whitehouse, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Virginia. “With sensors, we can collect data from the physical world, analyze it and hopefully improve efficiency.”

Whitehouse, an expert in wireless sensor networks, has ambitions for his sensors that extend beyond his own toilet and fridge.

He wants to install wireless sensors - which consist of a battery, a low-powered radio and a miniscule processor - throughout the Downtown Mall.

“Right now, national retail companies pay someone to stand outside their stores and count how many people walk by and how many enter,” Whitehouse said.

“With sensors, we’d have something that gives that same data to small businesses like the shops downtown.”

Whitehouse and his team of three other UVa computer science researchers are building a prototype motion detector system that could track pedestrian traffic on the Downtown Mall. He intends to approach several merchants later this summer to ask if they would be willing to have the sensors installed in their windows.

By the end of the year, Whitehouse hopes that the sensors on the mall will produce data that shows how many people pass by a particular shop per day, how many people stop to check out a window display and how many people actually enter the shop. Participating merchants would then be able to access their store’s data on a secure Web site.

For example, Whitehouse said, the sensors could tell merchants how much a Fridays After Five concert increased foot traffic outside their shop. With such data, the merchant could adjust hours of operation accordingly.

Also, the data from the sensors might show that pedestrians are passing by a shop’s window display without stopping.

The merchant could then apply the data to tweak his display to more effectively lure shoppers into the store.

The system, called MetroNet, is funded by a $70,000 grant from Microsoft Research, as well as a $10,000 matching grant from Barry Johnson, senior associate dean at UVa’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Whitehouse plans to integrate data collected by Downtown Mall sensors into Microsoft’s SensorMap, a Web-based project that plots data from a worldwide sensor network onto mapping programs, such as Google Maps.

“This is the first step to a bigger picture where everybody has sensors and everybody can share data collected from those sensors,” Whitehouse said. “We’re increasing the efficiency of the global marketplace. And in that way, we’re creating value.”

Merchant reaction

Merchants on the Downtown Mall seem to be ambivalent about Whitehouse’s idea.

One bookshop owner, who declined to be identified, was not interested. Specific data about foot traffic would have little value in boosting sales, the owner said.

Other shopkeepers were more receptive to the proposal. Francesca Conte, manager of the Charlottesville Running Company, said the more information she can acquire on potential customers, the better.

“We’d definitely be interested,” Conte said. “It’d be nice to know how many people are passing by during peak hours. Any information that we could get would be useful.”

Bob Stroh, co-chairman of the Downtown Business Association, said he is “intrigued” by the concept of placing sensors along the mall.

“I’m always fascinated by these types of ideas,” he said. “I want to know more about it. It’s hard to tell how more information could hurt.”

Under Whitehouse’s plans, the merchants would be asked to foot the bill for the sensors, which cost around $100. Online access of the data compiled by the sensors would be free for the merchants.

Because the sensors would be small and unobtrusive, they will most likely not require approval from the city of Charlottesville, said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services.

Sensor network

To help gear up for his potential Downtown Mall sensor network, Whitehouse has deployed 48 wireless sensors throughout the computer science department’s offices in Olsson Hall at UVa.

The sensors measure each room’s light, temperature and humidity. Later this summer, magnet sensors will detect when doors open and close, while motion detectors will pick up people movement.

In Whitehouse’s office, a computer program shows the raw data pouring in from the sensors throughout Olsson Hall, including behind his own office door. Scattered across his desk are various electronic sensor components and a floor plan printout of Olsson Hall that shows each room’s color-coded temperature.

Eventually, Whitehouse hopes, the data that funnels in from the building’s sensors will be applied to maximize Olsson Hall’s heating and cooling system.

“People complain all the time about climate control in this building,” he said. “So we’re monitoring the effectiveness of the HVAC system.”

Original Article | Local Copy

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