The Digital Helper

By Kashiwagi, Akiko | Newsweek International, February 23, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Digital Helper


Kashiwagi, Akiko, Newsweek International


Byline: Akiko Kashiwagi

The aim is to combine GPS, Internet and personal data with smart software to tailor information to the individual.

Who wouldn't want a personal assistant? In theory, a gadget that could provide instant advice on where to eat, when your train will pull out and where to find that gift for your husband's birthday would be a godsend. Computer scientists have batted the idea around for decades, but the technology was never really up to the task. Now that the mobile phone seems to be capable of so many tasks, NTT Docomo and other Japanese mobile-phone providers think the time has come to give it some brains as well.

The broad aim is to tie GPS, Internet access and other functions together with smart software to deliver information tailored to the individual--just as a human personal assistant would do. Docomo is developing technology that would take into account information from a variety of sources--user preferences, GPS and purchasing data, dialogue on Twitter feeds, e-mail, personal blogs and so forth. The idea is "a mobile that can read a user's mind," according to Kazuo Sato, the project's director at Docomo.

As Docomo envisions it, the device would make the reams of information on smart phones available in a way that integrates seamlessly into your lifestyle. As you walk into Ginza in Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon to do a little shopping, for instance, your mobile's software agent, which already knows about your passion for calligraphy, alerts you to an exhibition taking place only a few blocks away. Maybe this is your chance to indulge your hobby? "The mobile phone is now changing from one that is capable of doing this and that to one that can do something of value for users," Docomo president and CEO Ryuji Yamada said recently.

Docomo launched a preliminary personal assistant in November. Called "i-concier" (from concierge), it provides alerts based on information about the user and data from more than 200 providers. It can notify you of subway breakdowns, traffic accidents and earthquakes, and remind you about local community events and concerts. It will also automatically renew digital coupons from McDonald's and other restaurants, supermarkets, travel agents and film distributors. You may see a notification on the handset display tell you that a DVD rental is due back today, or that hard-to-get tickets to a Coldplay concert just went on sale. The service, which requires a $500 handset and costs [yen]210 ($2.30) a month, can't quite read your mind--you have to program it--but it's a first step.

So far, i-concier is off to a promising start. In two months, nearly a half million customers have signed up. It remains to be seen, of course, whether Docomo can continue to attract new users and roll out more sophisticated services that people want to use. …

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