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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Health | Science
The walls have eyes - and ears and ...

By Kimberly Patch and Eric Smalley, Globe Correspondents, 07/20/98

s long as the power is on, Michael Coen is never alone in his office. When he walks through his door the curtains open, the lights go on, the VCR plays Star Wars, and a computer-synthesized voice greets him: ''Good afternoon, Michael. What is on the schedule for today?''

The MIT graduate student's office is festooned with five video cameras, two video projectors, a microphone, and a whole lot of wires that disappear into the wall and across the hall to a room where three other graduate students and 10 undergrads run 60 software programs on 12 computer work stations to keep the magic going in Coen's ''intelligent office.''

The whole thing is the latest result of Coen's doctoral project to develop rooms or environments where humans can interact with otherwise inanimate objects and machines as naturally as they do with a colleague or roommate, and where the room is itself ''aware'' of its human occupants. One of the priorities is to make the technology so inconspicuous that people don't even notice it - but there's still a lot of work to do to reach that point.

The office's talents include the ability to see and distinguish among the people present, track their movements, recognize when they are pointing, hear them, and understand them well enough to obey certain commands. These are, of course, all simple feats for your average pet dog - but they remain difficult for even the smartest computers.

Coen's research, funded in part by the Defense Department, also includes an intelligent conference area, located at one end of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab room that houses the project's computers. The conference area includes video cameras to track motion, and projectors to display output from VCRs and computers.

When someone stands in front of the wall display, the room listens and tracks the person's movements, and it responds to gestures and spoken commands. If someone points to a spot on the projected image - say, a battlefield map - and says, ''Computer, zoom in on that,'' it does. That person can also designate different color Post-it notes on the conference room table as ''virtual buttons'' that trigger particular functions - like projecting a satellite image - when it sees someone touch those buttons.

Coen's office is more highly developed than the conference room because the ''guts'' are better hidden. The video cameras that track movement are more discreet and the wiring is almost entirely hidden from view. The office looks more like a living room, with a comfortable couch, coffee table, book shelves, and an entertainment center, but no desk and nothing that looks like a computer.

People interfaces for computers

''The original work on the intelligent room came out of a proposal to do new types of human-computer interaction,'' Coen says. ''We wanted to enable people to interact with machines the way they do with other people: by talking, by moving, pointing, gesturing. I like to think of this as not designing computer interfaces for people, it's designing people interfaces for computers. It's allowing computers to understand people on [people's] terms.''

Rather than developing a single large program to handle the tasks associated with the complex processes of seeing and hearing and the other functions the intelligent room can carry out, Coen designed a system that uses many smaller programs, known as agents. The system, dubbed ''scatterbrain,'' works by having these software agents communicate with one another.

This scheme allows the intelligent room to understand contexts. It knows, for example, that if you are standing in front of a wall on which it is projecting an image, it should watch where you point.

Coen estimates that it will be 10 to 15 years or longer before personal computers are powerful enough, and the technology is cheap enough, that consumers will be able to turn their homes into full-fledged intelligent environments. However, four technology trends are already making it easier to automate more and more of your home, or office.

Computer chips have become much cheaper, which allows manufacturers to add ''intelligence'' to everyday devices. They've also become much more powerful, which allows them to support complicated technology such as speech recognition. Speech recognition software has also made strides, becoming cheaper, more accurate, and easier to use. Electronic sensors such as motion and light detectors are becoming more affordable. And the Internet has exploded, providing cheap, flexible communications and access to vast repositories of information.

For years, consumers have been able to buy devices to automate many products that run on electricity. They can turn lights and appliances on and off and control thermostats, security systems, and telephones. One home automation catalog carries automated pet feeders, plant waterers, and litter box scoopers. Many of these products work by sending signals from PCs or remote control units to light switches and appliances using infrared signals, radio waves, and a home's electrical wiring for communications.

By voice alone

With these products, however, the user must consciously learn how to set the timer or use a computer keyboard to control devices. Adding speech recognition technology allows the user to control appliances from any place a microphone or telephone can pick up his voice, including at the other end of a long distance call.

Using speech recognition also makes it possible for most people to remember a much larger number of commands than they can with a computer keyboard or telephone keypad. They can use words or phrases to create the equivalent of a computer macro - a shortcut command that replaces a larger number of keystrokes. For example, the user could tell a home automation system to dim the lights and turn on music whenever it hears him say, ''It's party time.''

You don't have to go to MIT to see speech technology in action. A handful of manufacturers are already adding speech recognition technology to systems designed to automate the home of today, including Advanced Home Automation of Northampton, N.H., Applied Future Technologies, Inc. of Arvada, Colo., and Home Automated Living (HAL), LLC of Burtonsville, Md.

The pace is accelerating, moreover, with advances in microphone and noise-cancelling technology that have made computers' ''ears'' cheaper and better. Advanced Home Automation uses an $80 microphone for each automated room. HAL has contracted an engineering firm to develop $50 replacement light switches that include microphones and speakers.

MIT's Coen is going a step further, adding microphone arrays that listen to specific regions of a room. The arrays can place a virtual sphere around a person's head and only listen to sounds coming from within the sphere, he says.

Speech-activated home products will likely be especially helpful for elderly and disabled people who have trouble moving around their homes, not to mention the terminally lazy.

''You sit down on your bed and the next thing you know you're going to sleep and you forgot to shut off a light. With a home automation system, you don't have to get back up, you just shut it off by voice,'' says Thomas Dionne, president of Advanced Home Automation. ''You come in from the grocery store. Both your hands are full. It's dark. You can say, `Turn on kitchen light.'''

Convenient as this sounds, few people are likely to shell out the $500 to $4,500 cost for what amounts to a voice-activated TV remote. For this kind of technology to be adopted on a wide scale, Coen says, it must be truly useful, not merely convenient.

No hands `Net surfing

Factoring in the Internet, however, brings home automation technology closer to the realm of the useful. It's one thing to be spared getting off the couch to set the thermostat, but it's another to be able to cruise the Web sans keyboard or remote.

Home Automated Living's HAL 2000 includes a Web browser that can access a few designated sites and reply to basic questions about the weather, traffic, sports, TV schedules and the user's five favorite stocks. It can also read e-mail aloud and send a page or e-mail message to your office if, for example, a smoke detector goes off.

Further down the road, communications among devices might even spare the user a trip to the store. ''You can imagine a coffee pot that knows how many brews it has made, how many you ordered, and automatically makes a replacement call to your favorite connoisseur coffee company,'' says Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

The combination of the Internet and home automation ''breaks down the barrier between the inside of the house of the rest of the world,'' Zittrain says. ''That could be good or it could be bad. It can lead to a highly leveraged society where you can accomplish a lot without having to know a lot. But also a very brittle one, because the moment the lights go out or the network goes down, you could be in trouble,'' he says.

For Coen, the question is not whether people will take to intelligent environments - but when.

''If you look at the history of indoor plumbing and indoor electricity, these are technologies...that met with opposition. People thought they were frivolous. And look at how they've revolutionized how we live,'' he says.

''The notion of being alone may disappear, or it may be changed drastically,'' Coen adds. ''You may be in a room that's always alive and aware. And from my experiences here...when the space is `off,' you feel it. You notice that it's not reacting. There's a void.''

Kimberly Patch and Eric Smalley are freelance writers in Boston. They can be reached at kpatch@scriven.com and esmalley@scriven.com.

This story ran on page C08 of the Boston Globe on 07/20/98.
Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

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