The film clip from a security camera caught it all: A harried
executive's tensed face as his desktop computer seems to mock his
attempts to use it.
First, he pounds the keyboard with his fist, then rips it from
the computer, and finally heaves the screen over his cubicle wall.
It's an extreme form of a frustration that Michael Dertouzos
"For 40 years, people have served computers," says the director
of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in Cambridge, citing his own horror stories
of balky laptops and online delays. "We're going after a unique and
powerful goal: to make machines human-centered."
On June 21, Dr. Dertouzos, along with colleagues from MIT's
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and six major computer and
telecommunications companies, announced an alliance to revolutionize
the way people and computers interact. Dubbed Project Oxygen, the
effort aims to develop technologies and standards that will make
computers as pervasive as oxygen and as effortless to use.
In your pocket: a voice-activated, digital equivalent of the
Swiss Army Knife. It wraps a personal digital assistant, cell-
phone, wireless Web browser, e-mail "post office," GPS receiver,
video camera, and other functions into one small case.
In your home or office: systems that sense your presence,
anticipate your information needs, and seamlessly take the handoff
from your pocket device when you walk through the front door.
Nor is MIT alone. University computer labs and high-tech
companies worldwide are pursuing similar goals.
On June 22, for example, Microsoft announced Microsoft.Net, a
version of pervasive computing that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates
calls a "bet the company" shift from providing boxes of software to
providing "interactive services" where software resides online.
With its approach, Microsoft hopes to enable "knowledge workers
to create, browse, edit, and share information ... no matter where
they are or what device they're using," according to company
president Steve Ballmer.
For home users, it could mean the end of trying to be your own
information-technology manager. Tasks that drive many home users to
distraction - upgrading software, adding new functions, or backing
up files - "will happen automatically and transparently," Mr.
A number of factors have converged to give these efforts some
hope of technological success, analysts say. One is the federal
government's willingness to put up seed money for research into
pervasive computing. Many of the coordinated projects at US
universities began last year after the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency opened its purse strings (DARPA).
While Oxygen's corporate partners are putting up more than half
the $50 million for the five-year project, the balance comes from
DARPA, Dertouzos says.
DARPA money also is supporting projects such as "Endeavour," a
pervasive-computing research program at the University of California
at Berkeley that embraces the use of micromechanical devices and
robotics in its vision of computing's future. …