Local students draw inspiration from ants for new application

By Carolyn Roy – bio|email|Twitter

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) – Some Centenary College students have come up with a new Android application using geo-tagging that draws its inspiration from the insect world and allows users to communicate in a whole new way.

It's called Pherophone, and it's the brainchild of Centenary computer science associate professor Mark Goadrich, who was looking for ways to incorporate programming for mobile applications into his curriculum.  "We're trying to find things where there's not an app for it and that's where the computer scientist comes in and makes those apps, and so teaching my students that can really help them take their computer science knowledge out into the world and be able to solve problems for people."

Applications for Android phones are created with an "open-source" environment, with a computer programming language known as Java, which Dr. Goadrich uses in his class. So over the summer, Goadrich put out the call for students interested in creating a new application using that language.  Mathematics majors Jacob Jennings, Kathryn Hardey and Nolan Baker are all minoring in computer science.  All three answered the call, dubbing themselves the Catahoula Coders (The Catahoula is Centenary's mascot), and the brainstorming began.

"We sat down and talked about some ideas and I was like, 'Well, what if we could have people with their phones act like ants?'" recalls Dr. Goadrich.

"The most common way to communicate is person to person, but if you're an ant, you don't really communicate ant to ant. You're communicating through the medium of the environment.  So you as a person can leave a message somewhere in the environment and someone else wanders by and finds it.  So, doing that, ants can do really powerful things.  They organize trails, they optimize what they're doing, they can pick up dead ants and they can do other stuff like that, just based on leaving pheromones and giving other people signals and messages in the environment, never really talking to each other."

Pherophone allows its users to leave time-sensitive messages at specific GPS coordinates with their phones for others to find.  Users can "drop" messages at their current location, where other users can "sniff" it out.  Messages can be everything from a heads-up about a traffic snarl to spreading the word about a great garage sale.  But they don't last forever.  They fade and spread out, dissipating over time and distance.  "So it's really temporal and immediate, in a way," explains Dr. Goadrich.   "You have to have other people talking around you at the same time for things to happen, but when it does, you can have some really great group behaviors happen.  'Hey, there's a party going on, c'mon down,' or 'Watch out for this thing, something bad happened here, or 'Oh ,that's really interesting," people should go see that.  Those kind of messages that you'd want to leave, but not leave up forever."

And just as in the ant world, Jacob Jennings says, Pherophone messages are anonymous. "They don't know which ant dropped it. They only know that they can follow the trail."  The application also picks up Twitter messages if they're geo-tagged, but they remain anonymous as well.

It's already being used on campus to help new students get to know the layout.  "One thing we did for the freshman was, we dropped things at the different buildings around campus, so they'd know where it was," says Kathryn Hardy. "I thought that's really cool to be able to tell new students where the different buildings and things are so they don't get confused and lost."

Dr. Goadrich says about 1,300 have downloaded the free application so far, from as far away as Ireland and Indonesia.  "It's great to see that you can write an app and have people from all over the world use it you can make a definite impact and difference with whatever you do, so we're trying to provide that service for people to be able to communicate with people around them."

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