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Mark Smith: In Context

An Inventor at HP Labs Creates Devices That Know Who, What and Where

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9 February 2001

If you've ever been a regular customer at a diner or a shop, you know how great it is to walk in and be recognized. You don't even have to order. The server or store clerk already knows what you want: the usual.

Wouldn't it be nice if the appliances and tools you use at work and at home treated you the same way? What if entertainment devices knew what content you want and could work with services to build whole private programming schedules for you? What if the information appliances at work knew you and what you needed - no more PINs or passwords? You entire environment could respond to you as if you were a "regular."

Smart devices like these are just part of the future being invented at HP Labs, HP's central research arm based in Palo Alto, California. It's there that researcher Mark Smith is helping to create context-aware devices - devices that function differently according to who's using them, in what environment and for what purpose.

A passion for inventing

Smith started inventing early. He was eight years old when he built his first radio, using razor blades filched from his father's medicine cabinet, wire, a pencil and the cardboard core of a roll of toilet paper.

Smith's inventions have gotten a bit more sophisticated since then, but his interest in communications technologies has persisted. Today, he is leading efforts to develop context-aware devices that are as painless to use as they are powerful.

"The whole point of context-aware computing is to serve you," says Smith. "If we're successful, you won't even know you're using technology at all."

Connecting to Internet-based services

Among other things, Smith is working with Swiss watchmaker Swatch to create the world's first Web watch. The watch's capabilities go beyond Web browsing. Using the Internet as its communications infrastructure, the Swatch becomes a friendly and fashionable access to the power of HP's technology.

"We're trying to bring the Internet to your wrist, yes, but it goes much deeper than that," says Smith. "What we're really trying to do is come up with a sensible and useful way to connect you with Internet-based services. We want that to occur without you having to do anything."

Quote: 'When people went from beating their clothes on a rock in a river to using a washing machine, they didn't do that because they liked to see things spin around. They did it because they wanted clean clothes and to save time'

Context-aware devices won't require passwords or PINs. There won't be software to install or operating systems to worry about. The focus is on what they do, not how they work.

Another time-saving device in Smith's arsenal is SecurePAD. A smart badge for the workplace, SecurePAD functions differently according to who's using it, what the person is doing and where they are.

SecurePAD for medical privacy

In a hospital, for example, the SecurePAD could be used by physicians to gain access to appropriate patient files, hospital records, medical devices, file drawers, cabinets and medications. Using the SecurePAD, a doctor could gain access to relevant charts simply by entering a patient's room.

The SecurePAD would know when the doctor put it down and, if someone else picked it up, it would have a whole different set of e-services personalized for that person. Besides keeping patient information private and secure, the device would make it simpler for hospitals to comply with federal regulations requiring them to track who views patient records.

smart badge Like other context-aware devices, the SecurePAD would use biometrics - fingerprint, iris, face or voice recognition . to identify the user. GPS or other positioning technology would determine location. Sensors provide information about temperature, light, sound, motion and other factors in the environment.

"Think about Star Trek," Smith says. "The ship's at death's door. Something terrible is going to happen. The scientists and crew members don't pick up a PDA and start poking at it with a stick. They don't need to download some driver. The ship's sensors know exactly what's wrong so crew members can get right to the task at hand."

Life in a context-aware world

The way Smith sees it, context-aware devices will do more than adapt to changing users and situations. They'll create entirely new, rich experiences depending on who you are.

In a context-aware world, life might work like this: It's morning and you put on your Swatch or other context-aware device. In the shower, the water temperature and force are instantly adjusted to your preferences while the device gives you a rundown of the day's agenda. Your car radio plays the traffic report and weather for your region, then switches to that hot rock station you like.

As you stop at your favorite espresso place, the device pops up a message: Your sister has a surprise for you. At a kiosk inside the shop, you receive her video message wishing you a "happy Friday," along with a coupon for a free muffin. As you sip your coffee, the device alerts you that your 10 a.m. meeting has been moved to 9:30. You hustle out of the shop and back in the car.

Quote: 'The whole point of context-aware computing is to serve you. It's technology that lives up to your expectations'

Smith is an inveterate tinkerer who, by his own estimate, has been "soldering junk together for 30 years." The razor-blade radio was the first in a series of gadgets consisting of the likes of soldered-together wires and spare television parts. The same year, he made a humidity sensor out of hair. In high school, he and his classmates built physiological monitoring devices.

Right now, Smith is putting the finishing touches on what he calls "smart badge 4," the fourth in a series of experimental devices he uses to investigate context-aware computing. Smart badge 4, a platform for studying sensors and multimedia technology, will support Linux and will be able to handle Bluetooth, 802.11b, cellular and other wireless-communications protocols.

"I'm always trying to learn something new. There are areas I can't help but be interested in, so I've got to do it. I've got to try it," says Smith. "That's the power of HP Labs. If you see a new technical direction that you think makes sense, you can take the risk and follow it."

by Jamie Beckett


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