The Incredible Shrinking Computer Pt. 2: Corporate Smarts.
By Niall McKay in Silicon Valley, Thu Apr 12 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Following on part one, TheFeature now takes a look at various ubiquitous computing projects now underway in the corporate world.

Picture this: While standing at your front door, you say, “I’m home” and your door unlatches and slides open. The hall lights blink on as you step into the house and blink off again as you pass through to the kitchen. Your communications system asks you if you would like to hear your messages.

On the wall display in the kitchen you can see the video mail left by your friends and family. The dinner you left in the microwave that morning is heated. You eat it, as the house computer reads you your text messages, tells you that it has paid the utilities bills and gives you your bank balance.

You go upstairs to the bathroom where tub is ready, piping hot, just the temperature you like. While in the tub and have a voice conversation with your partner who is in the tub in his/her hotel room in another city.

Now, picture the same type of applications in the work place. Well… all accept the tub part, of course. Surprisingly, this is not just a scene from some science fiction film. It is much like the prototypes that some of the world’s largest computer companies such as Philips and Microsoft are working on today.

The concept

The systems are based on an idea first envisioned in 1988 by Dr Mark Weiser, a computer scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. He called it ubiquitous computing. IBM uses the moniker "Pervasive Computing." Intel calls it "Invisible Computing."

But whatever the name the basic idea is the same: To replace the complexity of today's computers with systems that are self-organizing, adaptive, intelligent and everywhere. Indeed, there are dozens of academic and corporate research institutions working on the concept (as mentioned in the first part in this series).

Microsoft Research has a project called "Easy Living" that brings ubiquitous computing to the home. Philips calls its project Ambient Intelligence. Intel is working the concept of ad hoc networks using short-range wireless networks; HP has a project called CoolTown, which envisions a world where every person and device has a Web site.

CoolTown could, for example, allow a smart alarm clock to give its owner a few extra minutes sleep on a day of light traffic. IBM's take on pervasive computing is a $185 million project is called Planet Blue. Stanford Research Institute (SRI), Sun and the European Union also have ubiquitous computing projects on the go. Sun's project is more practical and is encompassed in its Jini and Brazil projects and the European Union initiative is just getting off the ground and is called the Disappearing Computer.

Back when Dr. Weiser, first came up with the idea, it was brilliant but slightly unrealistic. After all, PCs were even more unreliable than they are today. Even simple networking tasks were notoriously difficult.

There were dozens of competing standards and data transfer rates were very slow. And let's face it. If what we had didn't work. Then what the in blazes were we going to do when our hamburger and microwave refused to talk to each other because they supported different standards?

We’ve made a little progress since then. Now, we have laid the foundations for Weiser’s vision. We no longer have just one computing device, the PC, but a constellation of networked devices; phones, PDAs, video games, interactive televisions, and even cars are emerging as networks devices with a new marriage between the automotive, electronics and computer technology.

These devices are able to communication using new short-range wireless networking standards such as Bluetooth. Soon, GPS will open up a whole host of location-based applications, letting the user simply ask their device for the nearest Starbucks or Denny’s depending on their preference.

Following that, context-aware computing will create new levels of utility in the computing arena. A frozen hamburger, for example, will be able to tell the microwave oven that it needed three minutes to cook. No more, no less. That is, of course, if the large technology companies don’t spoil the party by failing to agree on standards.

Easy Living

“It’s not so much the post PC era,” says Craig Mundie, senior vice president of advanced strategies for Microsoft. “It’s more the PC plus era.”

But then, Microsoft, has to hold on to that belief because without it, Windows maybe replaced with a new a computing architecture.

Mundie, whose job entails sprinting out ahead of the corporation’s product development to see what the software giant should be investing in next believes that Microsoft is the largest single investor in ubiquitous computing.

“Since 1993, at Microsoft we have been working towards ubiquitous computing,” he says. “We developed the WindowsCE platform for handheld devices, the games platform, the WebTV platform for interactive TV. All these are iterations of pervasive computing.”

“Of course, in our view it’s about standing on the shoulders of the PC to build this new architecture,” he says. “Think about it, the killer application for the Internet now is Web browsing and email. It’s like the PC circa 1988 when it was only used for spread sheets and word processing.”

According to Mundie, the real potential for the Internet lays not so much in the presentation of Web pages but the connectivity of a variety of computing devices.

Certainly, the company is doing its part to move to ubiquitous computing albeit as a way grown its Windows platform into new arenas.

The Easy Living project, for example, uses video cameras, sensors and actuators to provide an intelligent environment. Cameras detect a person's presence a computer system automatically adjusts the lights and routs the person’s desktop and music to the room when they identify themselves. If there is more than one person in the room all their music is displayed in a shared folder. The same can be achieved for pictures, documents and so on.

It’ll be some time however before such a system is available in the local computer store.

In the meantime, Microsoft is developing technologies that will build on the PC platform to provide ubiquitous computing, According to Mundie. For example a new version of its calendar, contacts and email program Outlook developed by Microsoft Research called LookOut. The program uses complex statistical analysis tools to “watch" how the user manages their email and contacts for the first couple of hundred of hours in service.

“From that it can learn if the user always responds to a certain emails immediately.” This coupled with a type lightweight of instant messaging client on the users cell-phone will enable the program to route important messages to the users immediately if important.

World Wide Information, Communication and Entertainment

Meanwhile, Philips Research has developed a prototype of its in-home system called World Wide Information, Communication and Entertainment (WWICE) as part of its Ambient Intelligence project. According to Emile Aarts, head of New Media Systems & Applications at Philips Research Ambient Intelligence is the integration of technology into our environment with three important characteristics: personalization, adaptivity, and that anticipate the uses intentions.

The Philips prototype features television sets with speakers and remote controls in the living rooms and kitchen and uses a PC in the study. All rooms are also equipped with a microphone and camera allowing the users to watch TV, browse the Internet and set up a video communication session. The system also allows users to be simultaneously engaged in all three activities.

WWICE is only the first in a series of prototypes through which the company will investigate the feasibility and usability of ambient intelligent home systems. Next the company will build systems that integrate Web controllable smart devices that support access to the Internet.

But when can we expect to see ubiquitous computing in the commercial world?

Commercial applications

SRI International’s Vice-President, of Information and Computing Sciences, Dr. Bill Mark, said that there are two ways of answering the question. “On the one hand, voice recognition, machine learning and vision technology will take between ten and fifteen years to begin to give us the utilities that we need to build really sophisticated invisible or pervasive computing architectures,” he says. “On the other, we already have the beginnings of invisible computing at work in our lives today.”

Take something as common as the Antilock Breaking System (ABS), for example, although it looks and feels like any other break pedal, an ABS break is connected to a computer chip which measures the conditions and takes the task of breaking from the driver. Cell-phone manufacturers have taken to the cause of location based computing with a passion because of the US government’s E911 mandate specifying that all cell phones much have a device by which they can be tracked to their physical location. There are more and more context-aware computing applications emerging every day.

For example, in Seattle, Washington most highways include traffic sensors embedded in concrete that can relay details about the amount of traffic in the area.

What the future holds

Despite these foundations we are a long way from moving from a predominantly PC environment to a ubiquitous computing environment. At SRI one component Dr. Bill Mark and his team of scientists believe is missing is the ability to record something as common as your every day company meeting. “We have a concept called Pervasive Dialogue,” he says.

A meeting will usually comprise of drawings on whiteboards, dialogue, PowerPoint presentations and so on. What’s missing is a single control system to capture and store all this information.

Indeed, Dan Russell, director of the IBM’s user sciences and experience group at its Almaden Research Center agrees (see Planet Blue ). There the company is developing a similar technology called a "room in two places," which enables a boardroom in Silicon Valley to connect with a boardroom in New York using video, audio, and software conferencing. During each meeting a number of different kinds of information, such as contacts, calendars, and visual data will be captured, logged and available at a later date.

Another part of SRI’s pervasive computing architecture is it’s next generation personal digital assistant technology code named Janus. This is a sort of PDA augmented with software that captures users preferences. For example, when a person walks into a meeting room it might dim the lights and clear the white board for the next meeting.

At Intel research they are interested in the concept of ad hoc networking using wireless standards such as Bluetooth. "Bluetooth started life as a cable replacement technology which is certainly a noble aim," says Roy Want, Principal Engineer at Intel Research. "However, the next phase for us is the concept of ad hoc personal area networks (PANs)."

This means that when your PAN devices, be it PDA, Laptop computer or even cell-phone, comes with in say 20 feet of another PAN enabled device you will be give the opportunity to create a personal area network.

This would make exchanging contact details, meeting notes or even PowerPoint presentations easy.

Certainly, one can imaging this being useful in the context of a business meeting but it would also have many applications in, say, education where a teacher could over the Personal Area Network in a classroom distribute class notes or homework assignments.

But who only knows what applications will emerge once kids get their hands on such a technology. No doubt multiplayer games will be popular. However it could also make exchanging music files as easy as, well... exchanging football cards.

Furthermore, Bluetooth PANs might become a popular way for a traveler to log on, book in and download their airplane electronic boarding pass.

Meanwhile, Hewlett Packard has a slightly different take. Its ubiquitous computing project is called CoolTown. Basically, the project is similar to both SRI's and IBM's view of pervasive computing only CoolTown uses the Web as the standard interface to all devices.

CoolTown's Eureka Conference Room, for example, enables whiteboards, video cameras and devices in a conference room be connected via the web to another location. The CoolTown, Museum provides a virtual extension to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and uses cameras and handheld devices to bridge the physical and online worlds. Each painting in the Van Gogh gallery broadcasts the URL and provides an in-depth page of information about the artwork.

It's not like any of the individual technologies detailed here are particularly new. What's new is getting them to work and this is, undoubtedly, what computing will look like in the next ten to fifteen years.

The details, what device, what language, what API have still to be worked out. However what is certain is that, consistent with Weiser's vision, there will be a subtle but consistent invasion of computing-enabled devices in our everyday world. The question is will this invasion improve or lives or paradoxically will pervasive computing become invasive with machines watching our every move.

The answer is up to us.

Niall McKay is a contributing editor for the Red Herring magazine. He can be reached at