Bo Brinkman, an associate professor of computer science at Miami University in Ohio, is married to a librarian. One day, while listening to his wife talk about the arduous, tedious task of rearranging improperly shelved books, Brinkman got an idea.
Brinkman, whose expertise is in augmented reality and computer ethics, worked with one of his students, Matt Hodges, and devised an Android app (they used a Google Nexus One smartphone and a Samsung Galaxy tablet, according to the Chronicle of Education, which reported this story today). They added tags similar to QR codes to a series of books, tags that represented the call number of each book. Hold up the camera or tablet in front of a series of books, and an overlay indicates to you which books are in the right order, which aren't, and which directions you should move them.
The sort of thing, in other words, that gets a librarian hot and bothered.
Is the app a tech-savvy love letter to his wife?
"It would probably be fair to say that it is a love letter to libraries themselves," Brinkman tells Fast Company. "I'm where I am today in large part because of the public and research library systems, and I view libraries as a crucial part of our educational system and cultures. Librarians are such enthusiastic, public-service oriented, and curious people that it has been really fun to interact with them on this project."
You can see the app in action in this YouTube video posted a few weeks ago.
It's garnered over 30,000 views, and excited commentary and questions. How many books must be out of order for th app to work? asked one. "Our algorithm identifies the minimum number of moves necessary to sort the books, and then it only marks the books that need to be moved with a red x. So yes, it will 'work' no matter what," Brinkman responded. And what about books whose spines are very skinny--would they fit the code? "Items narrower than 1/4 will be problematic," he says. "We use the 'video' mode of the camera, which only gives us 28 pixels per inch when scanning a whole shelf. You can make the tags smaller if you are willing to get closer, and scan only half a shelf or 1/3 of a shelf at a time."
The app is still in prototype. Is there money to be made here? Probably, though it's exact value isn't a sure thing yet. For one thing, the app only works on books that are tagged--which is easy to do for new acquisitions, but would involve a lot of effort for existing collections.
Still, it's very much worth exploring, and Brinkman will be alpha testing in two sections of the Miami University library this year, per the Chronicle. The University and state have first rights to patent. Brinkman, for his part, foresees a paid version for booksellers or other profit-makers, but for librarians, he'd prefer to keep it free.
[Image: Flickr user Changing World Photography]