IU informatics researcher earns three federal patents to strengthen user control in the ‘app economy’
“The future is apps” is a phrase commonly uttered by technology experts. Anyone who has ever struggled to find the right app at the right time might not share that opinion, however.
Sameer Patil‘s efforts to strike at the heart of this modern dilemma — and also strengthen user privacy in the “app economy” — was recently recognized by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has issued three patents to the assistant professor in the IU School of Informatics and Computing for his efforts on app search and discovery.
The work that led to the patents was conducted in 2014 at Quixey, a Mountain View, California-based company that aims to connect people with apps. A research scientist at Finland’s Helsinki Institute for Information Technology at the time, Patil spent four weeks during the summer of 2014 as a consultant at Quixey. He jokingly calls the job his “summer vacation” that year.
“The two major U.S. players in app search — Google’s Play Store and the Apple App Store — need improvement on two major fronts: relevance and accuracy, and search,” said Patil, who joined IU in August. “There currently isn’t a good way to sort or filter or find apps, and both services are overly focused on precise queries. If you don’t know an app happens to be called ‘Yelp,’ for example, you might not be able to find it. A search for ‘app for finding places to eat’ doesn’t cut it.”
His work at Quixey, which involved designing and conducting focus groups with users to understand their practices and preferences regarding finding and using mobile apps, generated insight that resulted in eight patent applications, three of which have been granted within the past couple of months. The common thread connecting the patents is their focus on protecting individual privacy while also opening up the convenience of social app search to a wider audience.
Patil’s first patent describes how to automatically infer who is currently using a shared device. The techniques use device usage patterns and contextual information, such as sensor data, which can indicate how the user is holding the device, or how the device is being used. A child might be more likely to play games aimed at children, for example, while a parent is more likely to use a banking application or use the device late at night.
“The ability to automatically detect who is using a device is enormously useful, since most devices like iPads are used by multiple people in the same family,” Patil said. “There is often information that parents want to keep private from children, or vice versa. This system could also be used to avoid showing adult content, like violent video games, to children who might be using the device.”
Patil’s second patent describes a technique to preserve privacy while also opening up information about people’s apps to provide suggestions based upon apps used by a user’s friends, or other users with the same tastes — similar to Amazon’s “other people also search for” function.
“Collective discovery is a powerful way to learn about new products, but not everyone is comfortable with other people knowing all of their information, since people use apps to track everything, including personal information like their medical history,” Patil said. “This patent describes a technique by which a user can indicate specific apps they’re OK with sharing and those they want to keep private.”
The third patent addresses another challenge in the world of apps: mobile devices that constantly run out of storage space due to unused and forgotten applications. This patent lays out a method to recommend apps for deletion based upon factors such as the amount of memory required, frequency of use and even physical location.
Although smartphones and tablets are the products most clearly targeted by the methods described in the patents, Patil points out that many other consumer electronic devices are now using “apps,” including GPS devices, smart TVs, smartwatches and even home appliances like refrigerators.
Patil is a member of the security group in the IU School of Informatics and Computing. His efforts at Quixey relate to his broader academic interests through a focus on providing individuals control over their data.
The research is also emblematic of the school’s strong connections with the industrial sector, including the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley. Many IU students have found internships and employment in the region after graduation, and several faculty have served as visiting scientists at companies such as LinkedIn and Yahoo. The dean’s advisory council at the school is also composed of prominent businesspeople and entrepreneurs who have made their careers in software and technology.
Patil is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to promote privacy compliance in software design in collaboration with Cisco and Microsoft. He is also the recipient of a 2016 Faculty Research Award from Google. Before joining IU as a faculty member, Patil spent 2011 to 2012 as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Apu Kapadia, an associate professor in the IU School of Informatics and Computing. He has also served as an assistant research professor at New York University and a research scientist in the mobile technologies research group at Yahoo Labs.