By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8795

An emerging form of “social radio” pioneered by School of Information Studies (iSchool) Professor Lee McKnight and the iSchool’s Wireless Grids Innovation Testbed (WiGiT) is being showcased this spring in its first public forums.

Called “WeJay,” the beta product is the first wireless grid-enabled application to emerge from the research undertaken at the Wireless Grids Innovation Testbed (WiGiT) lab at the iSchool. The innovation uses the multicast capabilities of wireless grids, a breakthrough “Edgeware” software for mobile and other electronic devices, and mashes up existing content, radio signals, users, and bandwidth to create a form of community broadcasting.

According to McKnight, “Edgeware” dynamically meshes devices and media, permitting secure intelligent ad-hoc formation of networks of devices without a dedicated server for network management. The new capability essentially comprises a personal cyber-infrastructure, creating a “personal cloud of your machines, your devices, your content,” he said.

Spring WeJay Showcasing

The patent-pending technology was licensed to Wireless Grids Corporation, which spun out of Syracuse University in 2004 and continues to collaborate closely with its alma mater. WeJay is being tested at a BOCES school in Rockland County, NY, and is in a beta trial on the Syracuse University campus as well. Several other real-world venue rollouts are planned for later this year, all as part of the Wireless Grid Innovation Testbed’s distributed testbed. 

At BOCES Riverview, a school for students with disabilities, WeJay is being assessed for its practical classroom applications. There, a group of high school students is using it to produce their own individual and collaborative radio shows. “It’s a real thrill to see what kids are doing with wireless grid applications to improve their own education in BOCES now,” McKnight said. “It’s great seeing the early products being refined through user interaction into practical tools by the very first and earliest adopters. It is really nice to see this validation from the essential group of first live users, and to see that what we hoped would be an empowering and enabling technology for people to help themselves is already helping some students,” he added.

Uses for Social Radio

The WeJay social radio field test is part of iSchool Doctor of Professional Studies student Sarah Chauncey’s dissertation. As the Rockland BOCES Director of Information Resources and Learning Technologies, Sarah is overseeing 24 students doing podcasts on topics as diverse as the history of bowling shirts, passages in great literature, and Superbowl pregame commentary, and it has been a rewarding project, she said.

She described how the test environment has revealed a wide assortment of ways that people can use social radio. “The kids have pushed the envelope for things they want to have happen with the product. They are not only working on their oral and written communication skills, but looking at the station as a way to enhance collaboration and communication,” Sarah noted. The flexibility and diversity of podcasting permits the students to use their voices and also determine how they want to be involved – whether as on-air show talent, sideline commentators, or doing the background components of technical or music production in radio, she added. As a result, “One thing I know is that while technology keeps changing, radio is becoming even stronger as a means to communicate. I think radio is going to be around for a long time,” Sarah observed.

Emergent Theory and Ambient Ecology

A WiGiT beta trial, based from the SU campus, is currently recruiting participants among faculty and student audiences at the iSchool, the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, and other schools on campus. That effort is being managed by Patricia McKenna, also a Doctor of Professional Studies (Executive Education) doctoral student, and an information consultant from Vancouver Island (Victoria) British Columbia. Her dissertation is framed in emergent theory and supportive of the notion of emerging media ecology.

“We think of radio in terms of music, but it really can be so much more – whatever people want to create around sound,” Pat noted.  Her research involves how WeJay supports collaboration, interactivity, and the social online environment, specifically as related to ambient information, ambient journalism and ambient enterprise. Pat also is looking at how creativity is affected when people interact and collaborate. In that context, “WeJay as a wireless grid enabled technology can begin to assist us in coming to understand more about wireless grids, the emergent media ecologies, and how ambient ecologies are combining and can cut across all sorts of disciplines,” she explained.

The technology also is scheduled to be showcased in late March at the TEDx Harlem conference, where a live demonstration and press conference are planned to announce further technical developments,  describe early testbed rollout activity, and announce WiGiT Version 0.1 Open Specifications.
Distributed audio sharing across a wireless grid was first demonstrated by iSchool students working with McKnight in 2003. By 2004 McKnight had launched the spin-out firm, Wireless Grids Corp, to license the rights to commercialize the technology to create a wide variety of wireless grid.
In 2009, McKnight resigned as CEO of WGC after a merger with Varsity Media Group, and became principal investigator of the Wireless Grid Innovation Testbed project. McKnight remains on the Board of Directors of WGC. 

The WiGiT project researches ways to permit emergency responders to communicate regardless of what radio frequencies or devices they use is underway with NSF support, and will be demonstrated summer 2012 in cooperation with Madison County NY and Syracuse City Police, among others.
Researchers from Syracuse University, Virginia Tech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, Rochester Institute of Technology and others have collaborated on the project. More than 60 campuses, companies, and communities have joined WiGiT, with McKnight planning to announce new members at the time of the TEDxHarlem event.

The testbed was created by Syracuse University in concert with researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), with support of National Science Foundation (NSF) Partnership for Innovation program grants.

How WeJay Works

•    The technology allows individuals to communicate with each other through various types of devices or operating systems (such as computers, laptops, mobile phones).

•    They download the “Edgeware”software application (known as a ‘gridlet’) to obtain access to a new, temporary Virtual broadcast grid.

•    Anyone identified as part of that grid can connect to others through any digital device with an IP address.

•    For the emergency response device to be demonstrated in the summer, a device called a cognitive radio, using existing radio bandwidth or signals, can pick up any radio frequency. The cognitive radio works in cooperation with another wireless grids edgeware application from WGC, Gridstream. It understands the information and transmits it back in understandable form to anyone else on the grid.