Have you ever found yourself looking up directions on your computer just before running out the door, only to end up retyping the same addresses and mapping the same route on your phone minutes later?
A new system designed by Tsung-Hsiang Chang, a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology , and Google's Yang Li makes it much easier to transfer computing tasks between devices.
Simply take a photo of your computer screen with your smartphone's camera, and the phone automatically opens up the corresponding application in the corresponding state. The same process can also work in reverse, moving data from the phone to a desktop computer.
"People are used to using heavy tools to transfer data or synchronise two devices," Chang says. "You have to plug in a USB cable and maybe open iTunes and synchronise a bunch of data at the same time. But sometimes you just want to send a tiny bit of information, or a single piece of information."
The system, called Deep Shot, exploits the fact that many Web apps use a standard format, called the uniform resource identifier (URI), to describe the states they're in.
For instance, if you search for directions on Google Maps, then click the link that says "Link," a window pops up that says "Paste link in email or IM."
The link consists of a long string of symbols, including the addresses of the starting and ending points and codes that indicate their geographical coordinates and the approximate size of the map window.
That's a URI. The data contained in a URI can vary widely, and URIs are a common feature of many Web applications - if sometimes harder to extract than they are with Google Maps.
EASY TO IMPLEMENT
Deep Shot requires installing some minimal software on the phone and on all of the computers with which the phone will interact: You might, for instance, want to use the same phone in conjunction with a home desktop, a home laptop, a work desktop and your spouse or children's computers.
When it's uploading data to a phone, Deep Shot uses existing computer vision algorithms to identify the application open on screen, and then the software installed on the computer extracts and transmits the corresponding URI.
Changing the framing of the photograph will also change the framing of the application window that opens on the phone. Conversely, when Deep Shot is downloading data from the phone, the computer vision algorithm identifies the computer that the camera is trained on.
At present, the system works with several common Web applications, such as Google Maps and Yelp, and with minimal additional coding it could be made to work with any application that reveals its state through URIs.
Since URIs use a standardised set of codes, Deep Shot can also mediate between different applications, transferring data from one map application running on a desktop computer, say, to a different map application installed on a cellphone.
In principle, the system could also work with off-the-shelf software: It would just require software developers to make some minimal modifications to their code.
Since Chang was at Google when he worked on Deep Shot, Google owns the rights to it. Google has not yet made the system publicly available, but when it does, Chang will be among the first to install it, having come to depend on it during the summer he helped invent it. "It just makes everything so much easier," he says.