Jewish World Review July 26, 2002 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5762

New PDAs could whisper tips in your ear

By Charles Q. Choi | (UPI) The digital assistants of the future may help whisper advice in your ear from experts in every field from surveillance to cooking and home repair.

Prototypes of such exotic devices were revealed on Tuesday at a demonstration of emergent technologies given by Accenture Technology Labs of Chicago, the research and development arm of the global firm formerly known as Anderson Consulting.

Using a combination of silver-dollar-sized wireless cameras and omni-directional microphones as eyes and ears, researchers showed how computer software or remote teams of experts could provide a wide range of information, from critical facts and figures at corporate presentations to tips for repairing bathroom tile.

"It almost gives you a bit of telepathy," research associate Dana Le of Accenture told United Press International as she wore a portable computer at her hip and a pink earphone mic on the right side of her face. "Just by whispering in your ear, this can help back you up," she said.

The idea is simple -- because computers are becoming smaller, the technology is well on its way to becoming wearable. Industry analysts have predicted "40 percent of adults will be using some form of wearable computer by the end of the decade," said Luke Hughes, director of Accenture's facility in Palo Alto, Calif.

"But no one wants to look like a 'Borg,'" Le said, referring to the half-human, half-robotic characters on TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" series. "No one wants to wear a camera over their eye down the street or interrupt the flow of conversation with sudden commands to their computer," she said. With that idea in mind, researchers are thinking of ways to make the computers interact more naturally.

One innovation Accenture senior researcher Dadong Wan helped produce is the Personal Home Improvement Assistant, which in the future could become a variation of the now-popular PDA. By tapping into electronic yellow pages now under development, a person looking to put up a light fixture simply could describe the do-it-yourself task at hand, and speech recognition software would put them in contact with several electricians or hardware stores anywhere in the country.

With the assistance from an expert over an earphone -- who surveys the situation using cameras attached to flashlights or other household appliances -- the customer could carry out home repairs at a fraction of the cost of hiring a handyman, while the specialist saves himself or herself a trip.

The same technology could help people cooking at home or shopping in malls, Wan told UPI. Given the increased presence of security cameras, he added that people afraid to walk down certain streets someday could request local companies to check the cameras to make sure their intended route is clear and safe.

Another possibility, which Le is developing, carries the official name Personal Awareness Assistant, but it has been nicknamed "Cyrano," after Cyrano de Bergerac, who whispered courtship advice into a friend's ear. Through a microphone, Cyrano would listen for oft-repeated words and sentences, such as "Nice to meet you," or "How interesting." It constantly would retain the previous 60 seconds of conversation in a data buffer and then record anything said a few seconds before and after any keywords were spoken into data files of only about 50 kilobytes.

"We tried recording everything from dawn to dusk, and we found out that lives are full of junk, monotonous stuff no one wants to relive," Le said. By noting these cues, wearable computers could augment their users' memories discreetly -- people could use a microphone to ask their PDA, literally, who they met at a party, and by cross-referencing all sound files recorded after "Nice to meet you" and the dates and times those files were recorded, the computer could recall the sound files containing with names.

Cyrano also could be linked to cameras to capture low-resolution images at the same time cue words are spoken, Le noted. Although privacy might be an issue, Le said all the prototypes were built with off-the-shelf parts, meaning anyone could build them now. "We're just exploring what they mean," she said. "In the future, it's likely an etiquette would go up around this -- whenever a person wears one of these devices, people will know how to respond appropriately."

Wearable computers expert Vaughan Pratt of Stanford University in California found these concepts "eminently practical." One question, however, he told UPI, would be "with such a wide range of applications, will the number of devices proliferate in proportion? The obvious downside to that is that it can become an expensive proposition to get them all. But the upside would be simplicity -- if you can dedicate a machine to one function, then you can have better production efficiency and make it cheaper."

Wan cautioned not to expect the prototypes to appear on the market anytime soon. "It will probably take three to five years," he said.

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© 2002, United Press International