14 February 2018
Imagine moving through a public space and all of the digital displays changing to show your preferred news channel, travel information for your commute or the weather at your next holiday destination, as you walk past.

This is what is happening right now at Lancaster University as part of the world’s largest research study into personalised public displays by computer scientists.

Researchers from Lancaster’s School of Computing and Communications have developed and deployed a piece of software, called ‘Tacita’, which runs on 50 of the university’s on-campus displays. Lancaster University has 65 public smart screens in a network called ‘E-Campus’, making it the biggest pervasive display test-bed in the world.

Tacita, which has been running at Lancaster’s campus since September, will help inform how public displays across cities could be converted to smart displays showing more meaningful personalised content.

Users download the Tacita app to their smart phones and this provides a list of content from providers that have been approved by the screen owners and developers. The options include information such as campus information, TV channels, bus departures, as well as weather and time - all of which can be tailored to match user preferences.

For example, if a user wants to see live bus information appear on screens as they walk past they can select this in the app.

When the user moves within a specific radius of Tacita-activated public screens the display’s content will then change to reflect the user’s preference, along with random other destinations to help protect privacy.

“This is about making public displays more relevant for the users so it displays more content you might care about,” said Mateusz Mikusz, a final year PhD student and Research Associate at Lancaster University. “It is a way of increasing the display’s value both for users, who are getting more engaging content, and also for display owners, because they have a more engaged audience.

“Tacita differs from other public display systems because it shows truly personalised content based on preferences set by users - other systems rely on more generalised demographic data typically gathered from video analytics, which also opens up privacy concerns.”

The research team includes leading experts in areas surrounding privacy and computing and the privacy of users has been at the forefront of the development of Tacita.

Unlike other personalised public display concepts, the Tacita system does not rely on users’ devices having to communicate personal information to the displays. Instead, the Tacita app protects the user’s privacy by the app communicating to content providers who in turn communicate with the owners of the displays, without any need to link back to the requesting user.

The Lancaster campus displays use beacons to determine proximity.

Nigel Davies, Professor in Pervasive Systems at Lancaster University, said: “This is a really exciting development in which we are creating systems that can work together with users to enhance our public spaces.”

Research challenges still need to be addressed, such as how to determine what content is displayed when a display receives conflicting requests from multiple users.

Tacita has been developed as part of the research programmes ‘PACTMAN: Trust, Privacy and Consent in Future Pervasive Environments’ and ‘PETRAS IoT Research Hub — Cybersecurity of the Internet of Things’, which are funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The work includes collaborators at the University of Manchester and the Università della Svizzera italiana.