From the Editor

FRAMINGHAM (08/01/2000) - The brainiacs at MIT have a vision of human-centered computing called Oxygen (www.oxygen.lcs.mit.edu). It's not a new vision--we saw an early version of it on Star Trek back in the '70s, with rooms that responded to Enterprise crew members' individual needs and devices that "sniffed" and interpreted the environment through a variety of sensors. What's new is that researchers at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) have created a comprehensive framework for making the vision a reality.

Working with a notably global mix of alliance partners (Acer Inc., Delta Electronics Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. Labs, Nokia Corp., NTT DoCoMo Inc. and Philips Research) and funded in large part by DARPA, the group intends to flip the existing human/computer relationship. "We will no longer bow at the altar of great machines," declared Michael Dertouzos, director of the LCS, at a recent press conference. Instead, "we will bring machines into our lives to serve our needs."

The lexicon of Oxygen includes the words pervasive, ubiquitous, human-centered, automated, mobile, intelligent and adaptive. The technologies include delivery devices (both handheld and embedded in your home, office and car); new, dynamic networking protocols; user software for speech, vision, automation, access and collaboration; and integration software to pull it all together.

With the technical prowess of the alliance partners, I don't doubt their ability to develop the pieces. But there are two huge challenges standing in their way: reliability and ubiquity.

Oxygen depends on the technology working together all the time, anywhere, without human intervention. "It must never shut down or reboot--components may come and go in response to demands, errors and upgrades, but Oxygen as a whole must be available all the time." I'm not holding my breath.

The ubiquity issue raises a more intriguing problem. To get the most out of the system, you'll want it in all parts of your life: your home, office, car, health club, grocery store. Yet other consortia are sure to develop competing systems. Will the Oxygen alliance and competing interests let their systems interoperate? If not, who will dictate the environment we inhabit?

In this information-enriched (and dependent) world, people will be loathe to leave their environment for an alien one in which they're at a distinct disadvantage. Just as millions of years ago fish developed gills and mammals lungs, perhaps this represents a new stage of evolution, and we'll adapt to the type of information environment we select (or are selected into).

Or maybe, given the growing interdependencies of corporate entities, this doesn't stand a chance without good standards. What do you think?

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