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Undergrad Invention Turns PDAs into Tour Guides

By Isabel Sterne '10

Museums can be overwhelming sometimes, with visitors unsure where to begin and too many displays to choose from. A CALS undergraduate has solved the dilemma with a new web-based tool that allows a visitor to use an iPhone or Blackberry to discover points of interest tagged by previous patrons as especially worthy of attention. Created by Jonathan Baxter '09, a senior Information Sciences major, the MobiTags system is specifically designed for displays at Cornell's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Jonathan Baxter
Jennifer Vargas

Jonathan Baxter

"If you want to find an item in the museum someone labeled as 'cute,' there is a tag for that," says Baxter.

With this user-driven system, it is museum visitors and not curators who make suggestions and provide information about items and exhibits. Museum visitors can forgo, for example, the antique spoons exhibit and instead draw on the recommendations of others to locate displays that match their interests.

"The information provided at many museums can be hard for the average person to understand or take interest in," says Baxter. "With MobiTags there is a diversity of opinions. This bridges the gap between curators and visitors and offers a forum for describing art in very different ways."

The idea for MobiTags came from Baxter's work in the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Lab, where students are encouraged to design and test computer applications that work to solve social issues. Baxter's faculty advisor Geri Gay, MPS '80, PhD '85, the Kenneth J. Bissett Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication, sees many opportunities for students working in the lab.

"Students gain a firsthand understanding of the impact of social media on interactions, communications, and other areas," says Gay.

Baxter, who entered Cornell as an environmental engineering major, says working in the HCI Lab helped define his career goals. "Undergraduate research is a great tool to figure out whether you like a certain discipline, because it gives you hands-on experience with the work you would be doing in either graduate school or the work force," he says.

Baxter hopes to extend the MobiTags technology to other realms. Next up: a MobiTags campus tour.