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Pervasive Computing Gets Organized

Beyond the 20th century: Standards emerge for sharing data across heterogeneous computers and input devices.

January 13, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Forget Moore's law. The reality is that workstations haven't changed all that much in 30 years, despite their enormous power and performance gains. Interfacing is still a matter of pressing plastic keys and clicking on a mouse.
But imagine, as Vince Stanford does, a time when a camera-equipped PC will be able to follow your gaze and shift applications with your focus. Imagine also that the camera and microphone arrays in conference rooms will recognize you, watch you, listen to you, infer what you want and produce the information that you need, sans keyboard.
"How do we get beyond this 20th century model?" asks Stanford, in his pervasive computing lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) sprawling campus in Gaithersburg, Md. The computer scientist is creating standards that will enable computers and people to interact, no matter where they are.
Pervasive computing utilizes "multimodal" interfaces, and that means developing systems that can recognize voice and gestures -- systems that perceive their end users. The PC remains important in a pervasive system, and the technology could involve new ways of interfacing with a desktop, such as gaze-tracking.
But instead of inputting commands in front of one PC exclusively, a pervasive system extends the idea of interfacing to tens or hundreds of devices. It will no longer matter whether end users are in front of their PCs; their connection to information will be available from any device or location. It's a philosophical as well as a technological change.
"You need to shift the focus from one machine, one interface, to one person and one interface made up of many computers," says Stanford.
But there are problems. Although PCs may be "plug and play," pervasive systems are not -- yet. Interconnecting a wide variety of technologies that can be mobile or wearable, embedded or stationary, all performing a wide range of functions, can't be accomplished without standards.
NIST is at work on an open-source, pervasive computing standard called Smart Flow to address the underlying problem of connecting a variety of devices, systems and sensors that make up a multimodal environment. This standard is intended to let a company that makes a video, voice or location sensor, for instance, send data from that device in a standard format that could be accessed by an analyzer from another company.
NIST has formed the Pervasive Computing Standards Working Group and has begun recruiting vendors to join the effort. Initially, the focus will be on getting technology companies to join, but business end users will also be asked to participate. "We also

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