If these walls could talk

'Smart spaces' and e-offices of the future

Technopundits have predicted the arrival of "smart spaces" for years. Your car sends a message to a robot in your kitchen, so it can have your martini ready when you arrive home in the evening. A software agent on your LAN knows not to interrupt you with a phone call -- unless it's from your boss -- because you're working on a presentation for a meeting later that day.

A computer in your grocery store recognizes you and prints out a suggested shopping list based on your past purchasing patterns.

It's fun to think about these scenarios, but we rarely encounter them in the real world. Who besides Bill Gates lives in an environment in which IT senses and responds to the behaviour of the people in it? Your PC knows you haven't touched it for 30 minutes, so it turns on the screensaver. That's about it.

SENSORY PERCEPTION

Yet the technology to make our environments smarter and more responsive to our needs largely exists. Sensors of all types, actuators, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, large touch-screen displays, digital cameras, personal software agents, machine-learning algorithms, voice- and image-recognition software, even robots these aren't just the dreams of science fiction writers anymore.

The impediments to the widespread deployment of smart spaces lie elsewhere -- in the form of problems related to cost, interoperability, accuracy and reliability. And there are the social and cultural challenges. Just how much do you want systems to know about you? And how willing are you to have them make decisions for you, no matter how helpful they might seem?

Still, progress is being made. For example, researchers at Stanford University have invented a collaboration space called the iRoom, or "interactive room." A prototype includes several whiteboard-size touch-sensitive displays along the walls, a 6-foot custom-built display with pen input, an interactive display that doubles as conference room table, and a variety of cameras, microphones and wireless interaction devices.

Teams meeting in the iRoom can move information seamlessly among the devices and applications and to and from devices they bring into the room with them, such as laptops and handhelds. Any user can control any device on a wireless LAN that connects everything.

To make it all work, researchers created what they call the Interactive Room Operating System, or IROS, a metaoperating system for tying together disparate devices. "We have taken the operating system idea to the space level, so people can coordinate their work in an environment with multiple devices," says Terry Winograd, a computer science professor at Stanford.

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