SPOT: Things Have Started Thinking
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Dec 04 11:30:00 GMT 2002

What happens when wireless computers are in everything from tennis shoes to jewelry to toilet seats?

In 1999, professor Neil Gershenfeld at MIT wrote a book called When Things Start to Think, which explored the consequences of a world in which everyday objects had the ability to transmit digital information to each other. At MIT, Gershenfeld and his students concocted all sorts of far out gadgets, such as cups that informed a coffee machine to fill 'em up with decaf or regular. They also helped to develop the Mindstorm line of computer toys for Lego. The goal of the Gershenfeld's consortium (called Things That Think) is to imagine a world in which everything we are surrounded by has a computer and radio transceiver built into it, resulting in a ubiquitous and unobtrusive network of information.

Now, in late 2002, Microsoft has announced that it is getting in on the thinking thing action. At the November Comdex convention, held in Las Vegas, Bill Gates unveiled its Smart Personal Objects Technology (conveniently acronymized as SPOT). Gates told the crowd that Microsoft plans to introduce technology that will allow "small devices, whether they're pocket-sized, or wrist-sized, tablet-sized, wallet-sized [to] come together." And what will these objects actually do? Gates said they could be used for "sending a phone bill to a company, analyzing sales results or taking notes, organizing your music, [or] sharing your family memories with other people." We'll start seeing SPOT objects for sale in 2003.

See SPOT Think

SPOT was initiated three years ago, when Microsoft assembled a team of software and hardware engineers, designers, usability engineers, and product testers to come up with a set of technologies that added intelligence to objects using low-cost, low-power hardware. Microsoft ran focus groups to find out what people wanted in terms of personal digital technology. What it learned is that people wanted devices that were useful, like clocks, pens, radios, keychains, cameras, purses, wallets, but were easy to use, unlike the current crop of VCRs and PDAs.

In other words, people said they wanted their everyday objects to be smart and simple. Too many times, technology is simply slapped onto something without much thought about usability, making it almost impossible to use. (Stanley Kubrick satirized this trend toward overcomplicating everything with his hilariously unfathomable instructions for using a zero-gravity toilet in 2001: a Space Odyssey. (Read them here.)

The SPOT technology's hardware is based on a two-chip set being manufactured by National Semiconductor. The chipset will include a radio and a CPU, along with memory to store the software, supplied by Microsoft.

At Comdex, Microsoft gave the audience a taste of its vision for smart objects. A SPOT watch, for instance, would not only tell you the time, it would provide timely information: Your 9:30 appointment was canceled. You've been outbid on eBay. You have changed time zones. A SPOT pen would be able to write on paper as well as store what has been written for download into a PC.

Unlike Pocket PCs or mobile phones, which have value because they have so many different functions (camera, appointment calendar, email, etc.), Smart Objects are designed to perform a limited set of highly specialized tasks. To demonstrate, a miniature refrigerator was trotted onto the stage. There were a number of refrigerator magnets attached to it, including one of Elvis Presley. (Is there some rule that says every refrigerator must have a magnet of the King on it?) Bill Mitchell, the general manager of the Microsoft Personal Objects Group, explained that these were SPOT magnets, and would be able to "give you timely information, things like sports scores live, information on traffic, information on weather and potentially personalized information as well."

See SPOT Kick

Mitchell then went on to demonstrate a SPOT travel alarm clock. The time showed 8:45 am, and when Mitchell tapped the screen, it displayed the time that the alarm would go off the next morning. The clock learns to set the alarm to a certain time base on your habits, Mitchell said, and will take into account things like traffic and weather conditions. It can also consult your schedule and adjust for that, too. For instance, the clock will poll the daily calendar application on your PC and if it discovers that you have a flight scheduled for a certain time, it'll look at the traffic to the airport, and check to see if the flight is delayed. When the alarm goes off, it'll present the pertinent information to you in the form of icons designed to be understood by bleary eyes.

In one way, SPOT is a thrilling prospect. In another, it's scary. People joke about the infamous "blue screen of death" when Microsoft Windows crashes. But what would it be like to live in a world in which the prospect of completing previously-analog tasks such as brushing your teeth, sweeping the floor, or using the toilet was entirely dependent on buggy technology? Who wants to reboot their billfold before it will open? A network of conked-out SPOT objects would undoubtedly turn even the mildest of technophobes into table kicking Luddites. And they'd better be careful. If it's a SPOT table, it might kick back.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles. (And recently starred in an Apple Switch ad! -Ed.)