Ubiquitous Computing - The Bleeding Edge

 Tricy Nicole Predki, a University of Colorado student,
in a sensor suit that controls her dance music.

Plants that send thank you notes, player pianos that follow the dancer’s movements, and umbrellas that warn you of upcoming rain are just a few of the uses of embedded computers described in this article from the NY Times. More pics.

For his doctoral thesis, Rafael Ballagas worked with other students to build a magic wand that gave tours of Regensburg, Germany. Tourists could wander around the city, wave the wand to “cast a spell” and hear a voice tell them the history of where they were standing.

It sounds like magic, but the truth is a bit more mundane. The wand is just a cellphone, said Mr. Ballagas. “It’s packaged in a shell. It’s got a skin,” he explained.

The cellphone keeps track of tourists’ locations and notifies them when they get near a noteworthy part of Regensburg. When the tourists finish touring, the cellphone recalls their trip with information about every stop along their path. No one needs to take notes because the wand does it for them.

Ubiquitous Computing - The Bleeding Edge

 Sewing computers into clothing

Computer designers are working feverishly to develop more of this kind of magic by embedding the latest generation of chips in new places and giving them new powers to animate the world. The goal is computers that are practically invisible to people and more fully integrated into their lives.

Mr. Ballagas’s project is a step along the way; perhaps that is why Nokia hired him to work in its Palo Alto, Calif., research lab. But in the future, computer chips will be finding homes in even odder places than magic wands.

Imagine an umbrella with a cellphone embedded in the handle. It could dial up the weather forecast for the day and the handle could glow green if the outlook was fair. But if a storm was coming it could start to flash red at a pace based on the probability of rain. A platform like this opens up new business models and opportunities for advertising.

The umbrella might be free — if you’re willing to listen to it whisper advertising offers in your ear: “Psst. You know that raspberry-pimento-vanilla coffee you like? The store you’re about to pass just took a fresh batch out of the roaster 12 minutes and 34 seconds ago. Oops. 35 seconds.”

 Ubiquitous Computing - The Bleeding Edge


Leah Buechley is a postdoctoral researcher in the Craft Technology Group at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which studies software applications in traditional handicrafts. She is selling the LilyPad Arduino, a small flower-shaped disk with a computer chip at the center, which can be sewn into clothes. Sensors like accelerometers, for measuring acceleration or detecting and measuring vibrations, and light detectors are attached with wires to the “petals,” so the chip can track the wearer’s motion.

The main board costs $19.95 and add-ons cost from $7.95 for a tricolor L.E.D. to $24.95 for an accelerometer (sparkfun.com).

Dr. Buechley says the boards can be worn as soft computers “in a noninvasive, non-weight-bearing way.” One dancer used a leotard covered with sensors to control a player piano with her movements. There was no need to pay a pianist to stay in sync.

While there are many opportunities for fun, Dr. Buechley said the real market could be devices to help the elderly. She is exploring how to knit clothes that monitor a person’s heart rate, breathing and joint movement.

At the Intel Corporation’s Digital Health Group, Eric Dishman, director of product research and innovation, said he saw many opportunities for making embedded computers that could help people. His group is focusing on preventing falls, social health and cognitive assistance.

“People with Alzheimer’s stop answering the front door or answering the phone,” he said. “It’s really embarrassing not to know the difference between a stranger or a spouse at the front door.”

So Intel built a phone with “caller ID on steroids.” When someone rings, the phone flashes “a picture of the person and a little sentence about the last thing you talked about.” This is often enough to start a conversation and keep people connected to their families and friends.

His group is also using embedded sensors like those marketed by Dr. Buechley to track the movement of patients to prevent falls. They have put the sensors in both the clothes of the user and the carpet where the person walks. “Think Dance Dance Revolution for elders,” he said, referring to the video game in which players move to music on a dance pad. The hidden computer would watch the length of the stride and the pace of the walk for any aberrations that would indicate a problem. It would then warn the person and perhaps even call for help.

His group is not limiting itself to older people. Sunny Consolvo, also at Intel, has been working to create a system using similar sensors that gives feedback to users about their degree of physical activity with subtle and often coded metaphors. What she calls a “glanceable” display converts distances of walking and climbing stairs into a picture of a garden. “As you work through the week, the garden blooms. And if you meet your goal, a butterfly flies,” she said.

Using metaphor instead of a number or dial offers privacy and fun. No one needs to explain a garden scene on the laptop screen to anyone who might glimpse it accidentally. And the illustration can be changed. She said that one test user was taken with the idea of tracking his workouts by blowing up an onslaught of robot destroyers.

Other examples of sensors and displays being integrated into unexpected areas include the PhyTalk system from Phytech, an Israeli company. It uses sensors placed on fruit trees or other crops to provide information to farmers. One sensor monitors tiny changes in stem diameter, while another tracks size and growth of fruit.

Avi Lulu, the company’s chief executive, said the system could reduce irrigation costs while increasing yields. “We are not irrigating what we think the plants need; we’re irrigating what the plants really need,” he said.

Some plant lovers might be interested in Botanicalls, a simpler project developed by the New York University program in interactive telecommunications. It will measure soil moisture and send a message to the owner when the soil is too dry. When the plant gets the water, it also sends a thank-you note.

That might be useful, but it’s easy to see how computer chips, if they become too common, could be trivialized.

Tom Igoe, who leads physical computing for the N.Y.U. program, said his students were beginning to think critically about whether embedded computing was always worthwhile.

“It’s like being a kid in a candy shop,” he said. “You start to be critical. When you can have all of it, you start to get sick and you eat it only when you want it.” Cost is one issue, he said. Potential loss of privacy is another. And so much computing power can result in a relentless accumulation of data.

When they consider all those issues, Dr. Igoe said, many of his students leave “more Luddite than when they come in.”

With embedded computing, he added, “the end goal is not the communication but the quality of life that the communication affords.” He offered an example: the Toyota Prius, an electric hybrid, and many other new cars report fuel consumption instantaneously to the driver.

Whenever you can help people “measure how they do something, they change how they do it,” he said. It becomes a live-in video game, but a live-in video game with a purpose.

Via NY Times