Research News

Smartphone lab takes shape at UB

smartphone lab

(From left) Geoffrey Challen and Steven Ko are leading the PhoneLab project to improve mobile devices and educate students. Photo illustration: DOUGLAS LEVERE


Published August 30, 2012

“We’re trying to improve the smartphone experience. We want to make these devices work better.”
Geoffrey Challen, Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering

UB researchers are enlisting hundreds of students to build an unprecedented smartphone network that will help scientists improve handheld computers and better understand how the devices are changing the world.

Dubbed PhoneLab, the forthcoming network is believed to be the world’s largest collection of smartphone users assembled for large-scale experiments. It will help researchers build more powerful, secure and efficient smartphones and smartphone applications, improve wireless networking and educate students about mobile devices.

“We’re trying to improve the smartphone experience. We want to make these devices work better,” says Geoffrey Challen, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and principal investigator of PhoneLab.

While smartphone use is skyrocketing—Forrester Research says 1 billion people will have one by 2016—experimentation on the devices is limited. Researchers either conduct tests in the marketplace, which constrains their access to the smartphone, or create their own test group, which is costly and time-consuming.

PhoneLab will solve both problems by offering unparalleled access to a ready test group and their smartphones, Challen says. Drawing interest from scholars worldwide from a variety of disciplines, PhoneLab is expected to push the boundaries of mobile device research.

Here’s how it will work:

Using a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant, UB will equip 200 students with new Google/Samsung-developed Android Nexus S smartphones. The students will receive one year of free service with Sprint featuring unlimited voice and data plans. Sprint is providing up to $384,300 per year in savings toward PhoneLab.

In exchange, UB students must participate in two hours of experiments every week. A student might be asked to perform simple tasks, such as completing a survey, or something more complex, like using a new geotagging application. After one year, students will receive discounted monthly bills of about $44. There is a potential savings of more than $2,000 if enrolled for four years. Students who leave PhoneLab after one year will not be penalized, but they will have to return the phone.

Student privacy will be protected. Experiments will be approved by an Institutional Review Board, a group of UB faculty members whose role is to safeguard the rights and welfare of students. For more information about the board, visit the website of the Office of the Vice President for Research & Economic Development.

Students will receive an email prior to each experiment describing the research, what type of information it seeks and how it will be collected. If students are uncomfortable with an experiment, they can decline to participant. Research results will be shared publicly.

UB is seeking student participants, especially freshmen, sophomores and PhD candidates. For more information, visit the PhoneLab website.

While Google, Samsung and Sprint are providing goods and services toward PhoneLab, they will not influence the experiments, Challen says. PhoneLab will be available to accredited researchers at no cost, and UB will decide how experiments proceed.

Sprint will have access to smartphone data much like it does with its millions of customers. The PhoneLab team also will have access to the phones, but it will not constantly monitor them. Instead, the team will periodically check the phone’s location, battery level and other components to ensure it is working properly. This information will not be released outside of PhoneLab.

Challen is joined by PhoneLab co-investigators Chunming Qiao, professor; Murat Demirbas and Tevfik Kosar, associate professors; and Steven Ko, assistant professor, all from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

In addition to conducting research, the professors will develop undergraduate and graduate classes utilizing PhoneLab. UB students will learn how to program smartphones and smartphone applications, as well as better comprehend how this new computing paradigm is affecting society.

Anudipa Maiti, a PhD student and PhoneLab team member, says she’s interested in how academics outside of computer science will use the network. “PhoneLab will allow researchers from different disciplines to run collaborative experiments,” she says.

The researchers also plan to work with middle and high school students at the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School.

PhoneLab will expand soon to UB faculty and staff, issuing an additional 250 smartphones. UB plans to hand out another 250 phones in August 2014, growing PhoneLab to 700 participants. There are other smartphone labs—also known as testbeds—but none compare to the size planned at UB, Ko says.

“This is going to put the University at Buffalo at the center of smartphone research,” he adds.

Additional members of the PhoneLab team are PhD students Lokesh Mandvekar, Rishi Baldawa, Fatih Bulut and Anandatirtha Nandugudi; master’s students Bhaavyaa Kapoor, Michael Benedict, Vinu Charanya, Manoj Chandrasekaran, Jay Inamdar and Taeyeon Ki; and undergraduates Mitch Nguyen and Sean Zawicki.