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Mall Balls


This essay does not describe an existing computer program, just one that should exist. This essay is about a suggested student project in Java programming. This essay gives a rough overview of how it might work. I have no source, object, specifications, file layouts or anything else useful to implementing this project. Everything I have prepared to help you is right here.

This project outline is not like the artificial, tidy little problems you are spoon-fed in school, when all the facts you need are included, nothing extraneous is mentioned, the answer is fully specified, along with hints to nudge you toward a single expected canonical solution. This project is much more like the real world of messy problems where it is up to you to fully the define the end point, or a series of ever more difficult versions of this project and research the information yourself to solve them.

Everything I have to say to help you with this project is written below. I am not prepared to help you implement it; or give you any additional materials. I have too many other projects of my own.

Though I am a programmer by profession, I don’t do people’s homework for them. That just robs them of an education.

You have my full permission to implement this project in any way you please and to keep all the profits from your endeavour.

Please do not email me about this project without reading the disclaimer above.

This is a combined hardware-software project. You task is to create an object about the size of a tennis ball. It has some arrow shaped LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes) on it. It guides you through a labyrinthine shopping mall to your destination. It is a simplified version of the Hertz rental car scheme for helping drivers navigate unfamiliar territory.

You go to a kiosk, deposit some money, select where you want to go and it dispenses you a mall ball preprogrammed with its current location and the location of where you want to go and a map of the intervening territory. The mall ball works off an integrating accelerometer, a miniature intertial guidance system. It can’t use GPS (Global Positioning System) because you can’t get a line of site to a satellite indoors.

Mall Balls wills eventually debut at Comdex. Their job will be to ensure you hit all the booths you want to see with the least walking.

You can put quite a bit of intelligence into the kiosk. For example you might ask it to show you a list of all stores in the vicinity that might potentially sell a teflon egg poacher. Very clever versions might even check inventories, or let you phone the stores ahead of time from the kiosk.

You might tell the kiosk your itinerary of stores you need to visit and it works out a reasonable approximation to the salesman’s problem — the shortest route to visit them all.

Unfortunately mall operators hate their customers. They want to trap them in the mall as long as possible wandering lost and aimlessly, (hopefully impulse buying to alleviate the anxiety). They may be highly opposed to such kiosks appearing in their malls.

You want a sealed unit. This means the mall ball and the kiosk must communicate wirelessly, using something like the Java Ring scheme.

It may be possible to have broadcasting stations throughout the mall that help refresh the positional fix of the mall balls. You don’t need great accuracy, so I would hope that would not be necessary.

Since mall balls are expensive, people may not give them back. Perhaps you have to pay a big deposit, or buy your own ball and just buy programming services.

Mall balls would be useful for helping the blind navigate around cities. The balls for the blind would need to make noises or vibrate panels on the ball instead of using LEDs. They would also need to be more accurate.

Variations on the theme allow boys and girls to hunt each other in the malls and send short messages semi-anonymously to each other via the balls.

You might try building a prototype using a Palm Pilot with IR beam and an external GPS/inertial box.

You could build one on the Android platform, so long as the GPS unit works underground.

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