PlanetEye pieces together travel packs

An online travel planning service that grants would-be travelers context to make more informed decisions was built using a digital archiving technology platform developed by Microsoft Canada Co. in what was largely a collaborative effort.

Toronto-based PlanetEye’s service responds to the fact that organizing travel typically requires visiting multiple scattered Web sites to obtain various bits of information that must then be pieced together. “The premise behind this is I believe all the content you could possibly want exists on the Web,” said Butch Langlois, president and CEO of PlanetEye. “It’s just how do you get it all together?”

PlanetEye provides visitors with what Langlois called a “contextual landscape” for, say, identifying attractions and restaurants in the vicinity of a particular hotel.

Through Microsoft’s intellectual property licensing program – designed to make the company’s research and development resources accessible – developers at PlanetEye were introduced to the World Wide Media eXchange (WWMX) technology. It was then that PlanetEye developers recognized the potential in WWMX, said Langlois, given the travel site’s goal of providing visitors with visual cues, and having the technology to aggregate the data that would inevitably grow.

Developers from PlanetEye and Microsoft collaborated during the past year to launch a four-month private beta of the site, which was followed by a public beta last February.

Part of the motivation behind such collaborative efforts is to speed time to market of projects that would typically take longer individually, said Mark Relph, vice-president of the developer & platform evangelism group with Microsoft Canada. Developers at PlanetEye, he said, were granted “very deep access to the original developers of the WWMX technology.”

Although the teamwork approach proved successful, the initial stages of technology transfer were intense because “we’re talking about years of research done by the authorities in this space and trying to pass this down to a group of developers that will have just an idea of the product they want to build,” said PlanetEye developer Juan Gonzalez.

But that dynamic changed, said Gonzales, as PlanetEye developers’ knowledge of WWMX expanded and “a different type of collaboration starts, to figure out ways to share other types of resources to help each other.”

But the site has been, and continues to be, a work in progress, incorporating feedback from early adopters and critics during the beta periods. For one, the site has evolved from focusing solely on photographs (given that was residual from the WWMX project) to allowing visitors to factor in other types of data like hotels, attractions and restaurants.

“Our approach is that anything in the database… is geo-typed and everything can be added to a Travel Pack,” said Gonzales, referring to the option to assemble a portfolio of information and pictures about an upcoming trip. However, the infusion of new information types did present some visualization challenges around mapping data in a clear and uncluttered fashion, he noted.

The developers have also since incorporated the ability to troll the Web for “trusted sites” (like the New York Times travel and restaurant reviews) from which to extract data points for inclusion in PlanetEye’s ranking system so feedback, said Gonzales, is “not based on the opinion of one person or our users, but an aggregate of all sources we have recognized as authorities in the travel space.”

“So the aggregation tends to lead to interesting recommendations that maybe you’re not going to have from other sites that rely exclusively on user reviews,” he said.

And although no features have been expunged from the site following early user feedback, Gonzales said some functionality has been “de-emphasized” and will likely be used less and less by visitors. Take photo management, for instance, when visitors can crop and rotate their images. It was a site feature “but we realized that wasn’t the key advantage that we have and there were many other applications that could do that and much better,” he said.

Thus far, the site has garnered between 5,000 and 10,000 users primarily through word-of-mouth marketing, said Gonzales.

The primary benefit of WWMX is that it provides an archive of images and metadata on those images, particularly geo-tags to ascertain latitude and longitudes, said George Goodall, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. “It’s pretty interesting because it provides that kind of visual concept to a lot of other applications,” he said.

However, it’s more like the icing on the cake than the cake itself, noted Goodall, because although it’s a good platform for accessing content, it’s not “necessarily the development platform of choice for social applications for example. It’s more something you can interface to, rather than to build upon.”

Moving forward, in the short term, Langlois said the site will include new functionality like allowing users to post personal reviews of vacation sites to a map, and through that, connect travelers who share common interests.

But in the longer term, Langlois wants to take the site to mobile devices.

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