Oxygen: a new metaphor for communication and computing

Published June 24th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Communicating is as precious as oxygen and as such should be as ubiquitous. A $50 million research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aims at doing exactly that, as well as redefining the meaning of computing at your fingertips. 

At least 250 MIT researchers will be involved in a five-year project dubbed the "Oxygen Alliance," funded by the federal government and six private corporations -- Acer Group, Delta Electronics Inc., Hewlett-Packard Corp., Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Co., Nokia Research Center and Philips Research.  

The project began last fall with initial funding from the Defense Department after Michael L. Dertouzos, director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, and four other researchers proposed Oxygen to the Defense Department last year. 

The project aims at doing away with cumbersome desktop computers and the brainwork involved in figuring out how to connect while on the move. 

Dertouzos gives a glimpse of what Oxygen could do. 

"You are on business in Paris. You excuse yourself from the meeting, go outdoors, pull out your handy and ask it to contact Joe. It 'sniffs' the electro-magnetic surround, finds the local GSM cellular net, and calls Joe in New York," he writes. 

"Joe's in-the-wall computer answers. You tell it that the call is urgent, and since the machine also recognizes your handy, it forwards the connection to Boston, where Joe, seated in an office of your subsidiary, is chatting with the local VP. The wall machine of that office, sensing that the door is open, and based on an automation script Joe gave a year ago, determines that it can interrupt him. A pre-stored, life-size image of yourself flashes on the wall, as if you had poked your head through the open door," he continues. 

Then "the image clears its throat." 

 

And to make the devices even more ubiquitous, speech will replace the tedious process of typing in information, thereby making communication as "natural as possible," according to James Glass, one of the project's principal researchers working on the language aspect of the project.  

"I'm very anxious to see machines that cater to human needs," adds Dertouzos. "For 30 years plus, we have catered to the lowly needs of the machine." 

The handy that Dertouzos mentions is one of a number of Oxygen related technologies that the laboratory is working on and is known as the Handy 21, which interacts with two other devices the Enviro21 and the Net21 via Spoken Dialog Software. 

The Handy21 is portable universal device that Oxygen users carry. It looks like a cell phone but also has a small screen, a camera, a GPS module, an infrared detector, and a powerful computer. Except for a tiny analog part connected to its antenna, the entire innards of the handy are software controllable. Like a chameleon, the unit can change at the flip of a bit, from a cell phone, to a two-way radio, a TV, a beeper, a handheld computer, a pointing device and more.  

Two other technologies interact with the Handy21 to make it ubiquitous. The Enviro21, which unlike the person-centered handheld is space-centered -- in the office wall, the car trunk, or the home basement. Enviros bear the same relationship to handys as do power sockets to batteries -- they mimic the handys, but with greater storage capacity, processing power and communication speed. Many enviros are also connected to sensors and actuators, and can therefore raise the room temperature, operate a fax machine and tell if the door is open.  

The Net21 links all Oxygen devices to each other and to the world's networks, and creates secure collaborative regions that rise and collapse as needed. 

Spoken-dialog software, built deep within Oxygen rather than attached as a mere interface or a fashionable afterthought, together with some additional visual resources that observe Oxygen users, is responsible for making Oxygen natural and easy to use.  

But what will make Oxygen ubiquitous are four user technologies. 

Knowledge-access technology helps find the information that users need in a familiar way among their own data and other data shared by friends among the vast info-terrain of the Web. 

Automation technology lets you tell the machine what routine human work it should offload -- for example, when to interrupt you. 

Collaboration technology helps a group work together by tracing the discussion and keeping an accessible trail of issues, documents, and conversation fragments. Customization technology adapts Oxygen to the needs of individual users and it ensures that all software is downloaded automatically to all devices when new versions have become available, errors have been detected, or users have asked for new capabilities. 

The fourth user technology, meanwhile, is what makes Oxygen revolutionary. Machine identity of physical objects users care about. With this capability, the handys can detect the physical objects to which they are pointed, can direct them to do useful tasks on behalf of their owners, and can provide users with "X-ray" vision, by overlaying machine models related to these devices upon the physical images that users see -- for example a list of the activities that take place behind an office door.  

"If our dreams come true, Oxygen will mark as major a departure from today's desk-top metaphor as the latter did, when first introduced," says Dertouzos -- Albawaba.com

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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