July 1, 2003

IBM's pervasive computing theme park

- by Joe Barr -
IBM's Pervasive Computing Lab is a cross between geek heaven and a fantasy
technology-of-the-future theme park. About half the lab consists of
three rooms typically found in a house: living area, kitchen, and
garage. Every appliance in those rooms is connected to the home's
gateway device, which allows the devices to speak to each other,
connect to a server, or browse the Web.

Among the items I and a dozen or so other members of the Austin LUG saw
demonstrated were an iron, stove, refrigerator, TV, window shades, lights, cell
phone, digital picture frame, and car, all blessed with more intelligence than usual.

The house is not just wired, it's wireless. Devices connect to the gateway
device through a variety of means: proprietary power-based protocols
running on the house's electrical system, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and
others -- whatever it takes to get data to and from a specific device and
the rest of the system.

Bill Bodin, a senior technical staff member and director of the
Pervasive Computing Advanced Technology Lab, conducted the tour. Bodin is also the chief technology officer for the Internet Home
Alliance
, a consortium of technology firms working to bring the
cutting-edge to your kitchen, or anywhere else you might be in the home.

The gateway computer and all but two of the home devices are running
Java on Linux. The other two are running Java on a proprietary RTOS
from QNX. Bodin says IBM chose Java because "it's a good way to
insulate developers from the idiosyncracies of specific operating system
deployments." From a business perspective, using Java also means there is a much
larger pool of available talent available to create applications, as the
number of Java developers is much greater than embedded-RTOS
developers.

I asked Bodin what distribution of Linux IBM used. He said, "We've used
MontaVista, we've used Hardhat, we've used everything." As usual, IBM
is not playing favorites within the community.

We sat down in living area and Bodin went through a show-and-tell
session with many of the devices. He used both voice and GUI to control
the room: dimming lights, opening window blinds, turning the TV, stereo,
and Web cams on and off. The lab is hard at work on gesture recognition
as well, but it isn't ready for demo just yet. I worried aloud that
gesture recognition might result in severe thrashing in an Italian home,
but Bodin didn't flinch.

The voice recognition used by the devices requires no vocabulary
training, a fact which Bodin demonstrated by allowing tour members to
speak into his PDA/cellphone to turn the room lights on and off. The
gateway allows devices to access software and data on the server as well
as to share data with each other. Bodin transferred (legally, of
course, using DRM) a copy of "Old Time Rock and Roll" from the
entertainment center to the automobile. Later in the tour, while we
were in the garage, we listened to it on the car's stereo system.

The kitchen was even more impressive than the living area. The
refrigerator keeps track of what goes in and out, measures its weight,
the length of time it remained outside the box, and other metrics in
order to track its freshness. The type of product labels used in the
lab are actually already in use in the retail industry, but they are
typically used for theft deterrence. Each label is actually a
programmable, miniature antenna. The refrigerator also tracks energy consumption and interior temperatures in order to detect possible malfunctions before or as soon as
they happen.

The oven -- a hybrid conventional/convection air model -- retrieves recipes from servers on the Internet, then executes them
like programs. That technology provides perfectly cooked, perfectly
timed creations. I mentioned to Bodin that this technology might have a
big future in fast food outlets. He agreed, but added that the results
are such that it could work in the best five-star restaurants as well.

Not everything in the lab is designed for household use. The current
star of the lab -- a fully operational drone aircraft running and controlled by
Linux -- was not available during the tour. It's been busy at the Paris
Air Show, where Bodin says it was quite an attraction. No, IBM is
not going into the aircraft business, it's simply providing the
technology.

I asked Bodin if the lab was purely research or if it is providing
real-world examples of pervasive computing. He noted several
examples of where technology developed at the lab is being used today, among them one in the construction industry and one in a housing development.

Airtoolz Software has created a
scheduling application using pervasive wireless technology which allows
contractors to cut days off the construction cycle by linking up-to-the-minute inventories and job status information in order to more
intelligently schedule work crews. On the consumer side of the home
industry, IBM is providing the technology infrastructure for a
development in Tinker Creek in Roanoke, Virginia, to automate a number of
common household functions, like checking to see that the stove is
turned off and that doors are locked. Each home will also be connected
to an intranet so that residents can keep up with community news and
events.

If all this sounds too cool for words but Austin is not on your itinerary,
you can check out the 5,000 square foot IBM display area at
Epcot's Future World: Innoventions exposition in Orlando, Florida. Bodin told me than in the near future, visitors to the IBM exhibit there will be able to view activities at the lab live twice a day. He also said that once some refinements are made to various streaming technologies being used in the lab, you'll be able to visit live from the Internet. Tell your stove to remember to check on that next month.

Joe Barr has been writing about technology for 10 years, and about
Linux for five. His work has appeared in IBM Personal Systems Journal, LinuxGazette, LinuxWorld,
Newsforge, phrack, SecurityFocus, and VARLinux.org. He is the founder of
The Dweebspeak Primer, the
official newsletter of the Linux Liberation Army.

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