Mobility in many dimensions

HP Labs develops Personal Mobile Grids to enable next-generation mobile experiences

HP Fellow Paul Congdon

“People still tend to think of mobility as about a single cell phone roaming from one cell site to another,” says HP Fellow Paul Congdon, of HP’s Networking and Communications Lab.

While that’s certainly important, mobility now has several other dimensions, Congdon notes.

First, we want to be able to roam easily between different kinds of networks – between a wide-area 3G network and a local Wi-Fi signal, for example.

But we also want to spread our mobile experience across multiple devices, accessing the same content and services from our laptops, phones, tablets, and more.

Finally, we are using these devices while playing different roles – as a consumer, as a parent, as an employee, etc. “And those personas,” says Congdon, “are mixing all the time.”

Finding answers in the Cloud

So how do you offer people “frictionless” mobility in all those dimensions? The solution, Congdon believes, lies in the cloud. More specifically, he says, “it rests upon seamlessly bonding each of us across all those dimensions with content and applications that are held for us in a virtualized cloud space.”

Doing that is far from simple, however. It’s rare to be able to move easily from one kind of public network to another, for instance, let alone make automatic handoffs from public cell phone networks to, say, private enterprise WiFi services.

And while it’s possible to go from watching a video on your cellphone at home to watching it on your home TV, again, there’s no generic framework in which you can do that for any and all devices and applications.

But Congdon believes that such an architecture can be devised, and that it can have the power to offer seamless mobility in all the dimensions in which we’d like it to work.

Avatars and your Mobile Personal Grid

As evidence of progress, he points to the Hotspot 2.0 initiative in which HP is participating and that aims to allow 3G handoffs to WiFi connections in public places like coffee shops and airports.

But mobile applications themselves also need to be reinvented, says Congdon. “Their application architecture needs to be partitioned,” he argues, “so that they can run on different devices with different resolutions, processing and memory requirements.”

If those newly-flexible applications are also all placed in the cloud, along with data like our email threads, music and movies, we’ll be in a position to be pervasively linked to our content and applications wherever we are.

The HPL team has a name for this new architecture: our Mobile Personal Grid – and it’s enabled by one other novel concept: a cloud-based, personal avatar.

Think of this avatar as a personal connectivity assistant, says Congdon. “It serves you the content you want via the applications you want on whichever of your devices you want to use. It’s unique to you and it's always running, and, when you need it to, it will make the switch to a new device or network automatically, without any complicated handoffs or log-ins.”

Avatars can ease mobility in another way: by working with other people’s avatars to get stuff done. “Say you and I are in the same room together and I want to give you a video file,” Congdon suggests. “I would just drag that file onto your avatar, and our two avatars would figure out the best way to do the transfer right now.”

If they’re in the same room, they could set up an ad hoc, high-speed, point-to-point network. If they’re in different parts of the world, the avatars might automatically set up a dropbox-style solution.

Security and personality

Cloud-based personal avatars can also be used to manage your privacy, says Congdon.

“Instead of having to set your privacy preferences for every application,” he notes, “apps can now get that information from your avatar. Today, every device has to know about every other device and every application is installing something on every device. With avatars controlling your Mobile Personal Grid, we reduce that complexity by having everybody just converge at each other’s avatar. And if you’re unavailable for any reason, people can connect with your avatar on your behalf.”

Since avatars are software creations, they can be given different facets or profiles. You might have a work persona and a home persona, for example.

That would help with the ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) trend that currently bedevils enterprise networks. With this new framework, says Congdon, “we create a separate slice of a Virtual Service Network that is for consumer devices on your enterprise network. And so long as we make sure that the applications on that device get mapped onto the enterprise network accordingly, you can use them on it without compromising the network’s security or compliance.”

Research projects

HP Labs researchers are moving on a variety of fronts to bring their vision of multi-dimensional mobility to life.

Teams in HP Labs’ Beijing and Palo Alto offices are adding the Hotspot 2.0 protocol to company’s wireless LAN products.

Another group is researching miniature cell sites, called femtocells. “The idea is to further facilitate in-building localization, so that your avatar can know exactly where you are,” says Congdon. “We’re looking at how these tiny signal repeaters can use other kinds of information, like GPS and WiFi signals and even things like images and sound to intelligently assess where you are, even though you are outside of traditional cell phone range.”

A third team, working with HP researchers in Brazil, is devising a proof of concept for a personal avatar design. They’re starting out by exploring how sensor data from smart phones can best connect back to the cloud server that would run an individual avatar. “We’re prototyping both the avatar piece and the platform-independent agent that lives on the mobile device,” Congdon explains.

A fourth group is investigating mobile battery virtualization. Just as your avatar might have different priorities depending on whether you are at home or at work, you might want to virtualize and prioritize other resources, such as battery life. That could mean allowing your device unlimited time to play games at home, but reserving battery power for work apps during the working week.

“It’s all about understanding your context – about where you are and what you want to do at any one time,” says Congdon.

The Holy Grail in mobility has long been to have one device with infinite battery life that’s totally secure, always connected, and effortless to use.

We’re a long way from that, Congdon readily admits. “But a persistent and secure Mobile Personal Grid, run over existing networks by your own personal avatar in the cloud, is entirely possible – and it’s what we’re working on building today.”