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IBM plans pervasive computing future

Human-friendly computing on the cards


Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of electronic gadgets in your life? Confounded by the Web's ever-growing plethora of sites?

IBM 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," says Michael Karasick, a spokesperson for IBM's pervasive computing systems and software division.

Karasick is part of the global team of researchers from IBM labs involved in the company's four-year, £120 million experiment called Planet Blue.

Its 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," Karasick says.

The experiment started in February, and its early research is largely aimed at finding out what types of applications will be needed in the future. However, several actual projects are already under way, he says.

One project has IBM researchers looking at ways to develop knowledge bases that can be shared. "Last year, the number of virtual communities increased by 10,000," Karasick says. "How do you remember who's interesting in the community and who's not?"

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

The system monitors e-mail and looks at the content to determine fields of expertise. Then the employee can edit it and present the material in a way they find comfortable.

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

The group conducted has conducted pervasive computing experiments in airports, says Michael Wirth, of IBM's User Systems Ergonomic Research Group. Carried out over two months, the experiment gave 30 frequent passengers of a regional airline handheld wireless devices.

The units were similar in size and shape to a Palm, but included built-in encryption and a radio frequency identification tag. By carrying the devices, fliers could be tracked to within 30 feet anywhere in the airport.

When a traveller approached an airline ticket counter or a car park assistant's desk and waved the device at a corresponding receiver, it transmitted their information to the service's computer. Then the service could automatically generate an electronic boarding pass or car contract.

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

"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 says.

However, for handheld devices to truly become useful, the infrastructure technology that supports them must evolve, as well as the design of the devices.

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


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