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Electronic Devices Poised to Enter Self-Communication Age

July 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Enabling everyday appliances and components to relate to each other is the goal of an industry-academia partnership.

Virtually any device employing semiconductor technology soon may be able to communicate with its electronic siblings, cousins and even distant relatives. Research underway at an engineering institute, supported by private industry funding, aims to empower electronic components and everyday hardware to communicate with one another during the course of routine operations.

The results could render existing appliances as obsolete as rotary-dial telephones—still usable in a bare-bones functionality, but unable to interoperate with other widely accepted functions. The effects would reverberate along the entire sociological spectrum, from residents who will refurbish their kitchens, to military forces that will adjust their operations as they increasingly rely on innovative commercial technologies and devices.

The commercial marketplace is driving these changes, as electronic hardware manufacturers visualize a near future in which networked appliances assume greater ability to perform tasks without direct control by humans. People will embrace these new capabilities, forecasters believe, as readily as they did other time- and labor-saving items such as dishwashers and microwave ovens.

Spearheading this research effort is the DigitalDNA Laboratory established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Funded by a $5 million grant from Motorola, Phoenix, the DigitalDNA Laboratory is based in the MIT Media Laboratory at the university in Cambridge. The new laboratory is an extension of MIT’s Things That Think research consortium.

Company and university officials foresee the evolution of disparate appliances into a seamless intelligent device society. Telephones, for example, would know when not to interrupt their owners, based on time of day and caller identity. Kitchen appliances would team to produce a meal prepared perfectly to the owner’s likes and dietary needs.

Gregory C. Nelson, corporate vice president and chief marketing officer of Motorola semiconductor products sector, explains that the embedded world, while pervasive, does not have widespread awareness among users. Company research among consumers revealed that the faster technology develops, the more that users will face increasing layers of complexity.

He notes that the company has been involved with the MIT Media Laboratory for five years. The DigitalDNA Laboratory expands this relationship considerably. The university’s Things That Think program, which is moving to a new level, was heading toward the same goal, which Nelson describes as “things that link.”

“As products can begin to be networked together, much as personal computers are today, they can bring to consumers’ needs the same kind of exponential jump that happened to computer sales after the arrival of local area networks and the Internet,” he declares. “Those sales boomed, and the power of the personal computer multiplied exponentially.”

Increasing hardware power is only part of the process, however. This research aims to reduce, or even eliminate, product complexity for users. Products benefiting from this research would work intuitively and organize their operations around their users, instead of the existing dichotomy of users organizing their lives around the technology.

University researchers will be using Motorola technologies, products and architectures as they work to develop embedded systems, software, architectures and applications. Nelson offers that the company hopes these researchers will provide a window on the future with their focus on applications 10 years ahead. The company’s researchers tend to seek more specific outcomes, as opposed to the MIT scientists. “A lot of the researchers there have never heard the words ‘it can’t be done,’” he says. This attitude may help guide Motorola into new commercial areas.

“We do not want to try to put tethers of any kind on these researchers,” Nelson emphasizes. “We are working with them to open a window on some of the incredibly far-sighted things that they are working on.” The ideal would be to find ways that Motorola can facilitate faster and better research at the laboratory while the company learns how to move into new areas, he adds.

The laboratory will focus on linking smart products such as set-top television boxes, automobiles, household appliances, personal digital assistants and wireless communications systems. In effect, MIT researchers will determine how new Motorola technologies will help them develop new applications. The laboratory will also provide feedback on emerging new technologies.

The DigitalDNA Laboratory “is a playground,” Nelson declares. An array of applications-oriented stations allows researchers to let their imaginations run wild with new technologies. One Media Laboratory researcher, for example, recently ran the Boston Marathon after swallowing several computer chips to monitor body functions. He was connected by cellular link to a personal web site, where viewers could observe his body performance on the Internet.

Motorola is maintaining a scientist in residence at the DigitalDNA Laboratory. The company also will work on cooperative projects with university scientists based on research that emerges from the laboratory. An advisory board comprising individuals from the company and the Media Laboratory oversees operations. 

This research differs from merely establishing wireless connectivity. Where connectivity work focuses on remote control of various electronic devices and systems, the DigitalDNA Laboratory is pursuing technologies that will eliminate the need for humans to control their hardware.

For example, an experimental cellular telephone is able to recognize how close it is to its user and identify user habits. This removes the need for the user to organize his or her activities around the telephone’s idiosyncrasies. The telephone intuitively is able to organize itself around its master.

Military systems would be affected by commercial communications advances, which would provide enhanced functionality to devices such as cellular telephones that are seeing increasing use in military operations. Logistics elements such as inventory control also could benefit. Name badges equipped with transponders could provide correct-level access for a person by merely entering a room, for example. Any forms of tracking and surveillance could be enhanced, Nelson offers. The potential for military applications may actually be ahead of the commercial arena.

In the commercial marketplace, individuals’ eating habits could see the greatest technology-driven change. Kitchen appliances linked to one another would be able to communicate about a range of valuable functions. Bar codes on food may be replaced by small transponder chips that alert refrigerators, microwave ovens and other appliances to information such as type of food and weight. A display on a refrigerator could alert a user about an upcoming expiration date for a food item or even reorder that item automatically over an Internet-based line to a grocery store if the item’s useful date expires or it is used up.

When an item is being cooked, the same transponder could alert the oven to the food’s size and weight, potentially monitoring its internal temperature as well. Different appliances could alert one another to the progress of a meal—triggering functions at the appropriate moments to begin preparations that would culminate in a multicourse meal, all of which is ready at the same time, for example. Or, a range could feature an embedded television display that provides a video with step-by-step instructions for a recipe.

In the laundry room, a washing machine could recognize the kinds of clothes that are placed in a washing load and adjust water temperature and detergent amount accordingly. A dryer could adjust heat with the same input to prevent an individual item from scorching.

Office machines also could benefit. A desktop computer could recognize its transponder-equipped user and automatically provide information necessary to begin a work day, including electronic (e-) mail according to priority, voice mail notification, daily taskings and appointments. The same individual moving from room to room could have a computer file follow him or her automatically through the office local area network.

Nelson notes that more than 90 percent of all Internet connections begin with a personal computer, but some projections predict that number will fall to 64 percent by 2002. Uniform resource locators, or URLs, will move off the desktop to a host of new products ranging from telephones to cars. Ultimately, appropriate appliances will have the opportunity to connect with the Internet; product design will have to take this capability into account.

Another device trend is specialization. “Instead of just convergence, we will see divergence—products that are simpler,” Nelson says. “They will have fewer functions, but they will do one thing extremely well.” He cites the palmtop personal digital assistant as an example of a device built around application simplicity that captured the imagination of its users. Consumers seem to be insisting on devices that are intuitive, simple and easy to use.

Accordingly, these new products are likely to be embraced by the public when they appear commercially. The company is positioned in the embedded systems market for transportation, networks, wireless, imaging and entertainment. Whether users are aware of how devices talk to one another is less important than the effect on daily routing, Nelson allows.

Cars, for example, are becoming packages of computing power. This computing power is beginning to be networked inside the car as well as externally. For example, internal networking includes personalizing elements such as electronic door unlocking that simultaneously recognizes the user and sets mirrors, seats, radio and other functions for the individual driver. Some cars even adjust the vehicle’s transmission for a particular operator’s driving style. External networking currently is providing cars with global positioning system data, and it soon will link them with the Internet by providing a vehicle-unique URL. This will enable e-mail, safety communications or even new security applications.

Applications based on research from the DigitalDNA Laboratory may begin to emerge in the next couple of years, Nelson offers. Plans currently call for the DigitalDNA Laboratory to operate in the MIT Media Laboratory’s Wiesner Building for four years. In 2003, it is slated to move to a new 5,000-square-foot dedicated facility connected to the MIT Media Laboratory.