Academic research and the growth of the Internet is prompting a movement toward embedding computing and communications devices in nearly everything, according to speakers at Intel's Computing Continuum conference. The two-day event showcases experiments in applied technology.
Among the examples: pens containing built-in scanners, shoes that emit notes depending on how the wearer moves and personal global positioning systems.
"We've had small computers for years. The key issue is the interaction," stated David Tennenhouse, vice president and director of research at Intel and a former chief scientist at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). "You start networking these suckers and things really change."
The conference in many ways could be described as fun with a purpose. Many of the devices, such as the musical shoes--the notes sound like the theme song from "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"--from the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won't be hitting store shelves soon.
Neither will the combo personal global positioning system/computer/virtual reality simulator from Columbia University. Currently, it's the size of a backpack.
Nonetheless, the prototypes show where and how digital technology can be integrated into ordinary devices. Shoe sensors, for instance, can also be used to monitor walking patterns and exertion in athletes, said Joseph Paradiso, principal research scientist at the Media Lab. MIT is also working on ways to harvest energy created by walking to power personal technology devices.
The trend toward integration is also one that Intel hopes to guide. The chip giant initially missed the huge market for networking processors and is catching up now through a bevy of acquisitions, stated a spokesman, and the company doesn't want to repeat the experience. Going forward, Intel wants to build silicon for the chief parts of the business "ecosystem," a company buzzword rapidly displacing "inflection point."
Intel will work with numerous outsiders, especially academic researchers, as this vision develops.
"The vast majority of good ideas are going to come outside of Intel," said Tennenhouse.
The initial wave of wired devices, in fact, isn't that far off. Pens containing sonar or optical scanners will likely hit the market within a year, predicted Wilfred Penfold, a marketing executive at Intel's architecture labs.
The scanner sits near the end of the pen. When a message is written, the scanner captures the handwriting from the paper. An owner can then send the data to a laptop computer or cell phone in the form of an email or fax. "The pen is much less intrusive than bringing a tablet to work on," he said. These pens also will cost less than $100, so you can lose them with less fear, he added.
These devices may take off first in Asian markets as a complement to voice-activated input software.
Although the technology appears destined to play a large role in society in the future, it remains uncertain how we will get there. One of the primary challenges lies in getting the technology to enough people, Tennenhouse said. To get household devices and office products wired to the Net, companies will have to develop cheap, embedded and intelligent processors in a variety of devices.
Just as important, researchers will have to figure out ways that these devices can manage each other without human input. Humans are reaching their saturation point and need to develop systems to off-load many of the control functions to machines.
"Computers are starting to oppress us. I find email oppressive. I get hundreds and hundreds of messages," Tennenhouse said. "We're now starting to see some of the unintended consequences of man-machine interaction."
In the end, many functions that currently seem to innately demand human interaction will likely give way to machines. Mobile guidance systems may be implanted in cars and in the land dividers on freeways so that cars drive themselves, he theorized. Those who like to drive "will have to go out to a theme park," he added.
The changes will mean that society will also have to contend with many privacy and safety issues.
"We've got to get people out of the loop. We want to get people above the loop," Tennenhouse said.