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AT&T shows off its innovative side

At a showcase in New York City, AT&T demonstrates new app prototypes with real-world utility.

From tracking lost luggage to turning your smartphone into a wireless microphone to making it even easier to troubleshoot your customer-service calls, AT&T engineers have been cooking up some interesting new applications to make your life easier.

The company showed off some of these new software driven applications at a technology innovation showcase in New York City on Friday. None of the new products at the showcase are available yet for commercial use. But AT&T highlighted several working prototypes. And with any luck, we'll see some of these nifty ideas hit the market in the not-so-distant future.

AT&T has embedded GPS trackers in luggage to show how its 3G wireless network can be used to help travelers locate lost bags. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Say buh-bye to lost luggage

AT&T has developed a kind of LoJack for your luggage so you'll be able to track and recover lost luggage much more quickly.

The prototypes on display integrated the GPS tracking device right into the bag. It had a built-in USB port to charge the device and a blinking blue light that could be activated to help you identify your bag as it's coming off the airport baggage carousel.

The embedded tracking device pinpoints the location of the bag using AT&T's 3G network. Using an HTML 5 website, users could track the whereabouts of their baggage. The software service can also send text messages notifying passengers where their luggage ends up. So for instance, if you were on a flight to San Francisco but your bag ended up in Detroit, you'd get a message alerting you to where your bag was. And then once you contacted the airline to have your bag returned, you could track its route back to you.

Though the prototype I saw was embedded into the suitcase, it could also be sold as an accessory that attaches to the case, or it could be slipped inside one of the suitcase's pockets.

David Marten, principal hardware designer for AT&T's machine-to-machine foundry, said the product took five weeks to develop from concept to prototype. He said the rapid turnaround is a demonstration of how quickly AT&T developers are able to take products from conception to near-production. He wasn't able to say if or when AT&T will be offering this product. And he couldn't say how it would be sold. But it sure is nifty enough that I could see it as a terrific gift for the frequent traveler on anyone's holiday list.

AT&T has created an app that lets customers share photos with customer service representatives to help resolve broadband connection issues. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Customer service help has finally arrived

How many times have you been on a call with a customer service representative who is trying to help you solve a problem and you just wish they could see what you're looking at? Well, that wish could soon come true for AT&T broadband customers. AT&T's engineers in Israel have worked closely with the company's Digital Care team to develop a new app that will allow broadband subscribers at home to get more personalized help when troubleshooting common issues.

Specifically, home broadband customers can use an app on their smartphones that will let them take a picture and instantly share it with a technician. This is especially helpful when troubleshooting network setups. Instead of technicians blindly trying to figure out whether cables are even hooked to the right ports, they'll now be able to see the setup. The technicians will also be able to send back pictures and diagrams through the app, which will show customers how they can fix their problems.

"Sometimes people just need a visual of what the setup should be," said Theresa Provencio, a manager on the Digital Care team for AT&T's U-verse product.

Provencio said AT&T is now trialing the app with some of its DSL customers. Because most DSL customers install their modems and routers themselves, they tend to have more issues than U-verse customers, whose setups require a home visit from a technician.

AT&T's new pocket microphone app turns a smartphone into a wireless microphone. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

A mic in your pocket

Smartphones have pretty much taken the place of most specialized, dedicated devices, such as cameras, portable music players, e-readers, and GPS devices. Soon you may be able to add wireless microphones to that list.

Thanks to the work of a few AT&T application developers in New Jersey, AT&T has developed technology that will let people use their Android and iPhone smartphones as wireless microphones that work over Wi-Fi or cellular data connections.

David Daudelin, a senior specialist app developer from AT&T's Middletown, NJ, facility, who helped develop the app as part of an employee hackathon, said the idea originated from the frustrations he experienced while attending conferences where people had to wait for microphones to be passed around to ask questions or make comments. Using the app that Daudelin and his partners devised, a smartphone can be connected via a Wi-Fi or cellular data connection to a laptop, which is then plugged into a speaker system, and voila, the phone turns into a microphone.

The app is still in its development stage, but Daudelin believes it could be used by conference organizers, educational institutions, or hotels that host events.

"It completely eliminates the need for a wireless speaker system," he said.

How AT&T would package and sell the app is something the business unit will have to figure out, Daudelin added. But he sees lots of opportunities. Personally, I could see this app taking karaoke parties to a whole new level. Office holiday parties may never be the same.