Benefacta 2006
Mapping a New Company

Start-up company afterimage GIS under the direction of Paul Shanayda and Brian Hatton
Bizhan Nasseh and Paul Shanayda have provided leadership for Ball State's Office of Wireless Research and Mapping, which develops unique and sophisticated 3-D models that predict how well wireless signals can be delivered to specific geographic areas.

spaceStart-up company afterimage GIS partners with the university's Office of Wireless Research and Mapping, where Brian Hatton (left), GIS analyst, and Nathan Pugh (right), GIS specialist and graduate student, continue their research.
Start-up company afterimage GIS partners with the university's Office of Wireless Research and Mapping, where Brian Hatton (left), GIS analyst, and Nathan Pugh (right), GIS specialist and graduate student, continue their research.

That guy in the cell phone commercials who wanders the country saying, "Can you hear me now?" quickly became a pop culture icon. But technology now being honed and marketed by afterimage GIS, a start-up company that sprang from the work of an innovative IT project at Ball State, could make him as obsolete as the Maytag repairman.

Like many successful ventures, the Office of Wireless Research and Mapping—the forerunner of afterimage GIS—came into existence serendipitously. Its genesis was the Digital Middletown project, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education and designed to test the value and impact of high-bandwidth wireless technology in a community setting.

The idea was to install a wireless network to reach a pair of nearby elementary schools, extend the network into the surrounding neighborhoods, and then experiment with a variety of delivery models and new media concepts. In order to make their technology work, university researchers began exploring methods to measure the strength of their wireless signals and how the contours of the land would affect the reception of those signals in various parts of the target neighborhoods.

The researchers found ways to combine geographic information systems (GIS) technology with proprietary radio-signal software from a Lithuanian firm, HNIT-Baltic. The upshot was a way to create sophisticated, three-dimensional models that predict how well wireless signals can be delivered to specific areas. The visual representations of the models look like giant mushrooms hovering over images of actual neighborhoods, clearly revealing where signal strength will be strong and where it will be weakened or blocked altogether by hills and other land features.

"We found that we were the only academic institution in the country to have this software," says Paul Shanayda, then advanced graphics and GIS coordinator in University Computing Services. "We wondered, 'Would this be of value to business?'"

The answer was a resounding "Yes!" and it led to the formation of the Office of Wireless Research and Mapping to handle the burgeoning activity. Service providers can use the information generated by Ball State's models in a variety of ways. It can help them locate ideal places to build communications towers that offer the best and most reliable coverage for the greatest number of people. It can help them pinpoint potential trouble spots. And it can facilitate sophisticated and highly targeted marketing by indicating which residents in an area can receive service and which cannot. It wasn't difficult to find companies eager to tap into the unusual expertise Ball State was developing. Indeed, some of the partners in the Digital Middletown project were among those excited by the potential. Telecom giant Verizon was one of the first to recognize the benefits, as did such wireless broadband providers as Digital Bridge Communications and Omnicity. The university also was asked to use the technology to map parts of Vermont and Virginia.

"We've gotten a lot of publicity from this project," says Bizhan Nasseh, executive assistant to the vice president for information technology, who led the Digital Middletown project and now is at the helm of the Office of Wireless Research and Mapping. "We've won awards—including being named one of five organizations honored with a CIO 100 Plus-One award by CIO magazine—and made many presentations. We've become nationally known."

The tremendous response to the mapping capabilities and the potential for future growth required the focus and driving energy that is the hallmark of entrepreneurial companies. Shanayda and Ball State colleague and GIS analyst Brian Hatton filled the bill as committed, knowledgeable, and resourceful entrepreneurs. The proprietors of afterimage GIS now lead the new company from offices in the Innovation Connector, a business incubator operated cooperatively by Ball State, Cardinal Health Systems, and the city of Muncie.

Katie Frederick, executive director of the Innovation Connector will lead the entrepreneurs to advisors and coaching that will help them think more strategically. "We are most excited about the opportunity to work with afterimage GIS and to help as they put our community in the forefront with this extraordinary business," Frederick says.

The Office of Wireless Research and Mapping remains a vigorous research partner of the company. "The office provides a model for how to develop very high-capacity broadband access to parts of the country that otherwise would not be able to participate in that part of the global digital economy," says Ball State Vice President for Information Technology O'Neal Smitherman, noting that such entrepreneurial activity is highly appropriate for educational institutions needing to disseminate the fruits of research for the public good.

Indeed, helping broadband providers map potential new service areas will benefit rural areas of Indiana, among many other locations. Nasseh also notes that Ball State students already have benefited from being a part of Digital Middletown, wireless mapping, GIS development, and related endeavors. "Some have gotten jobs even before they've graduated because of their hands-on experience," he says. And, finally, a new high-tech company in Delaware County is a boon for the economic development of the area.

The innovative thinking and interdisciplinary commitment of those involved in the wireless mapping endeavors—including Digital Middletown teams from Teachers College, the Ball State Teleplex, the Center for Information and Communication Sciences, and University Computing Services—have resulted in extraordinary outcomes and possibilities. One recent example: In September, the Office of Wireless Research and Mapping conducted the first national test of the WiMAX broadband wireless technology, which has the potential to make Ball State the center of testing by major telecom companies for the future.