Poof! Goodbye Computer. ; New Project Aims to Make Computers like Air

By Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

Poof! Goodbye Computer. ; New Project Aims to Make Computers like Air


Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 shares.

"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. Ballmer says.

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. …

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