IBM Labs Peek into Future, See Blue Planet

For those feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of electronic gadgets that are available and the ever-increasing plethora of Internet sites, IBM Corp. feels your pain and intends to do something about it.

"Right now we are slaves to our devices, but we can, in fact, build a world where we have the control," said Michael Karasick of the pervasive computing systems and software division of IBM.

Karasick is part of the global team of researchers from IBM labs involved in the company's 4-year, $180 million Planet Blue experiment, whose goal is to "build the world of personal computing -- to build applications that help show how people live and exist in a post-PC world," said Karasick.

Even though the project has been underway only since February, and early research is still being conducted into what types of applications will be needed in the future, a few projects already have begun, said Karasick, who works at the T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

One project has IBM researchers looking at ways to develop knowledge bases that can be shared -- an area expected to grow in importance as the Internet becomes more integral in our lives.

"Last year, the number of virtual communities increased by 10,000," Karasick said. "How do you remember who's interesting in the community and who's not?

Can I look at a community and say who's the authority and who really knows his stuff?"

Such questions have caused the research team to turn inward to find the answers. They have started to use an internal, automated knowledge-management system at IBM labs. The system is called the Skills Marketplace.

Instead of having employees enter data about their skills and expertise, the system monitors e-mail and, based on analysis of the content and subject matters, determines fields of expertise. The taxonomy is then regularly given to individual employees so that they can edit it and present the material in a way they find comfortable.

"We are turning good researchers into lab rats," Karasick said.

Other projects are looking at how people use teleconferencing and at what people expect from their mobile devices. Those projects are in their early stages. IBM still is dealing with basic infrastructure issues like putting up a cellular base station near the New York lab to accommodate increasing WAP (wireless access protocol) traffic.

Even with IBM's commitment to the research project, Karasick doesn't expect to find any simple answers to today's computing challenges.

"There is no killer app for pervasive computing," he said. "Anybody who says there is, is lying. But there must be an immediacy, the ease of use must be there, and the human factors have to work."

One experiment in pervasive computing that seemed to meet that bill was conducted in an unnamed European airport. Michael Wirth, of IBM's User Systems Ergonomic Research (USER) Group, told a group of reporters gathered at the lab, about a 2-month trial that gave 30 frequent passengers of an unnamed regional airline handheld wireless devices.

The units were similar in size and shape to a Palm, but carried a small 16-bit, 16MHz badge computer with built-in encryption and a radio frequency identification tag). By carrying the devices, the frequent fliers could be tracked to within 30 feet, anywhere in the airport using radio triangulation.

When a traveler approached an airline ticket counter or a car-park valet desk and waved the device at a corresponding receiver, information about that person was transmitted to the service's computer, allowing automatic generation of an electronic boarding pass or for a car to be retrieved without having to look up its position.

Wirth also said that a similar trial is occurring using mobile phones that enable travelers to check-in using their phones.

While the projects are small steps to expand the world of pervasive computing, they are definitely in the right direction, Wirth said.

"In the very long term, there will be a cyberspace proxy for every object in the real world, including for each one of us. It will represent me to that world and it will also assist me," Wirth said, adding that much communication will take place using handheld devices.

"Handhelds are becoming companion devices, and now we are seeing things added to them to increase their security and privacy such as security chips," he said.

But in order for handhelds to truly become useful, Wirth added that there must be developments in the infrastructure technology support them. Communications standards and protocols need to be open and adopted. Along those lines, IBM has submitted its Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) to be accepted as an open standard.

The design of the devices also must be improved.

"These devices are fashion statements," said Karasick. "You're not going to lug something around that makes you look like a dork."

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