Sunday, July 02, 2000

Into thin air?: Unhitching from the desktop

Computer plan is out of sight

By Theo Emery
The Associated Press

        CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A new $50 million research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aims to banish computers as we know them into thin air.

(Associated Press photo)
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        The Oxygen Alliance is a five-year project designed to make computers as ubiquitous — and invisible — as oxygen. At least 250 MIT researchers will be involved in the project, which is getting funding from the federal government and six corporations.

        Desktop computers and keyboards would go the way of the abacus — replaced by small, hand-held devices and out-of-sight units embedded into walls and ceilings that respond to voices, not the click of a mouse.

        “People should be able to communicate naturally with a machine, the same way that they do each other,” said James R. Glass, one of the principal researchers working on the language aspect of Oxygen Project, the research portion of the alliance.

        The project envisions a largely invisible computer network permeating homes, offices, cars and every other place where people live, work and play.

        “Oxygen” would be a tapestry of technologies. The project started last fall with funding from the U.S. Defense Department and was expanded to include Acer Group, Delta Electronics Inc., Hewlett-Packard Corp., Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Co., Nokia Research Center and Philips Research.

        It is not easy for members of the group to explain the “Oxygen” project — so many questions related to logistics and technology have yet to be answered.

        “I'm very anxious to see machines that cater to human needs,” said Michael L. Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, which is working with its sister lab, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

        “For 30 years plus, we have catered to the lowly needs of the machine,” he said.

        Mr. Dertouzos and four other researchers proposed Oxygen to the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last year.

        The ultimate goal is to unhitch people from the desktops to which they must now turn for their computing needs, according to John Ankcorn, the project's technical coordinator.

        It would work with several devices:

        Enviro 21s: units of sensors, microphones and cameras would be built into homes, offices and vehicles to gather and send information.

        Handy 21s: small hand-held devices with video screens, a camera and possibly a global positioning system would interact with the Enviros. They would combine features of cellular phones, hand-held computers, radios, televisions and remote controls.

        A network called the Net 21 would allow users to share information.

        A key element to making the technology usable is speech. The Spoken Language Systems group at MIT has been working to create speech-recognition software that allows users to talk with computers.




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