Computers In The Woodwork At CoolTown
By Howard Rheingold, Tue Dec 11 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Some pretty cool secrets can be learned form HP's wireless labs.

Hewlett-Packard's research facility in Palo Alto, a quick bike ride from Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, continues the work on "ubiquitous computing," now more widely known as "pervasive computing," that was pioneered at PARC ten years ago.

HP engineers are building working prototypes of smart spaces and intelligent objects with kludged-together but mostly off-the-shelf technology. Although the original "Ubicomp" researchers knew it would take a decade for the price of chips to drop low enough, they didn't know that location-based services, growing out of the communication industry rather than the computer business, might furnish a reason for people to link their telephones with other devices in their vicinity.

The HP engineers also have a worldwide infrastructure at their disposal that the Xerox pioneers lacked in 1988 - the Web. CoolTown researchers talk of a world where "every person, place and thing can be connected wirelessly." By assigning URLs and wireless webservers to physical objects, HP researchers are looking at what happens to life in a city, a home, an office when the physical world becomes browsable.

Inside city limits

In quest of CoolTown, I visited the same building on Page Mill Road where Bill Hewlett and David Packard's offices are still enshrined. After paying ritual pilgrimage to the eerily anachronistic temples of the founders, I was led to a door marked by a highway sign that said "CoolTown City Limits." Gene Becker, a strategist for HP's Internet and Mobile Systems Lab, welcomed me into what looked like an ordinary meeting room.

Becker pointed his modified Kyocera Smartphone at the projector and the room's web page popped up on the wall screen. "We call it "e-squirting" when we transmit URLs from our personal devices to another device in the environment," he explained. The projector and printer each had radio-linked webservers built into them. "Imagine walking into any meeting room in this building, or the world, and displaying your presentation on the screen, or printing documents on the local printer," Becker added. "If someone phones into the meeting, they can see the room screen on their desktop by way of the room's web page."

I asked Becker about the neo-retro aluminum radio console on a table in the corner. Becker pointed his phone at it and music started playing: "You can play your own music from any radio that's equipped to communicate with you. Stick a web server inside a device, and suddenly the Web and browsers become your universal remote control for that device." E-squirt your mailbox to the CoolTown mirror and read your email when shaving. Or send the mirror the URL of your family webcam. Becker pointed that the technologies used in CoolTown's prototypes could be applied to firefighting. Inexpensive radio-equipped chips known as "beacons" could connect the firefighter's helmet display wirelessly with the building's web page, complete with room maps. The presence of people or even family pets could be pinpointed.

GPS devices, a key enabling technology for location-based services, already routinely sync with satellites. CueCat and other barcode readers link printed paper with websites. Radio and infrared transceivers are starting to exchange information with Radio Frequency Identity (RFID) chips built into objects, furniture, buildings. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chipsets turn rooms into wireless broadband LANs, interconnecting all the infocom-enhanced devices that have begun to inhabit furniture, appliances, clothing, jewelry. CoolTown research uses all these technologies in order to create an ecology of web-present objects.

Think of all the public places where inexpensive wireless webservers could squirt up-to-the-second information of particular interest to you - such as the time your flight leaves, animated directions to your destination - directly to your phone or PDA. You could look through a physical bookstore, tune into "virtual graffiti" associated (via the Web) with every book, and read reviews from your book club or see how people who like the same books you like rate this one. Walk down the street, point your PDA at a restaurant, and find out what the last dozen customers thought about the food. Point your mobile device at a billboard and see clips of the film or music it advertises, then buy tickets or download a copy on the spot. Products and locations will not only have websites - many will have message boards and chatrooms.

Towns of tomorrow

A world in which everything around you might be retrieving data from your online dossier (and adding to it) can be a chilling one. Who owns access to your devices, and what control will you have over who can talk or listen to your device? HP asserts that the Web as a standard for connecting mobile and pervasive technologies is essential for maintaining open and affordable access. Essentially, the CoolTown researchers see a future in which many of the people, places, and things in the world have URLs.

As Becker puts it: "We don't want individual companies to gain unfair architectural control over how the physical and virtual worlds are connected. That would allow them to suck the value out of the industry. That's one reason why we're moving some of the software we've developed into an open source development community. We want to see a world, where like the early days of the Web, anybody with the skill and interest and some ideas can create novel applications for themselves or their friends or to create a business out of it."

If Bill Gates' house represents a proprietary vision of tomorrow, perhaps CoolTown presents a viable alternative. If today's mobile telephone will morphing into something more like a remote control for the physical world, very different social outcomes depend on whether the remote control medium is an open system like the web, or a closed system like a proprietary operating system.

With a background in technology writing, Howard Rheingold is the world's foremost authority on virtual communities. His 1988 article in Whole Earth Review, titled "Virtual Communities," contained the first-ever published reference to the concept. His 1993 book, The Virtual Community, was the first work on the phenomenon of social communication in cyberspace.

Howard served as an online host for the Well since 1985, and sat on the Well Board of Directors. In 1994, he was the founding Executive Editor of HotWired, the first commercial webzine with a virtual community known as Threads. He now runs a private community, Brainstorms.