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New Model of ‘Smart Campus’? Carnegie Mellon to Embed Sensors Across Landscape

Imagine a world where you’re driving to campus, and before you get there, your car tells you to park in one lot because it already knows another is full. That could soon be the reality at Carnegie Mellon University, where researchers have teamed up with Google to place wireless sensors around the campus to connect everyday items with the web.

The idea is to make life more convenient, and to provide useful data about the campus, said Anind K. Dey, the project’s lead investigator and an associate professor at the university’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. And it won’t stop at Carnegie Mellon’s borders. Eventually, the experiment is to expand into the city of Pittsburgh, in hospitals, at bus stops, on bridges.

Mr. Dey envisions that the campus could be wired with temperature sensors, cameras, microphones, humidity sensors, vibration sensors, and more in order to provide people with information about the physical world around them. Students could determine whether their professors were in their offices, or see what friends were available for lunch. Building managers could use the sensors to figure out how much energy was being used in particular campus locations. “It should radically change the experiences people have in their spaces,” Mr. Dey said.

Google gave Carnegie Mellon $500,000 in seed funding and access to its proprietary technologies in order to start the project, Mr. Dey said. He and his group of researchers will begin the experiment by placing sensors in their own offices and labs, and by 2016 they hope to expand the project to the rest of the campus. The open-platform project will also involve researchers at Cornell University, Stanford University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Security and privacy are top priorities, said Yuvraj Agarwal, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon and one of the project’s researchers. The group will allow users to opt into the system and customize what information they are willing to make available.

Still, Mr. Dey acknowledged that the project could bring unintended consequences. “I could also imagine it will expose things that people would rather not know about,” he said. “That exposure might not always be a good thing.”

Mr. Agarwal, for his part, said it was unclear how the experiment could alter people’s behavior and interactions. “How does this change us,” he said, “when everything around us is sensed and available?”

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