Researchers spawn innovative technologies

Among the cluttered cubes and workspaces of one of the world’s most prestigious technical institutions, students and faculty have long since tuned out the indisputable chirp of crickets that resonates every few seconds.

No, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology does not have an insect problem. The familiar noise actually comes from several small appliances (about the size of a pager) located on ceilings in various rooms, on equipment and anywhere that could be deemed a good place for a Stick-Up.

The hardware devices, called beacons, are part of the Cricket Indoor Location System, just one of about 20 technologies researchers at MIT Project Oxygen have developed since the group’s inception about four years ago.

“Oxygen is about trying to develop and innovate technology that promotes human interaction, more natural interaction between people and machines,” says Randall Davis, professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Davis doubled as tour guide when the school recently opened the doors to its Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory – home to Project Oxygen – to press, sponsors and the public interested in learning more about the initiative and how it aims to simplify computing.

Launched in June 2000 and sponsored by such tech industry heavyweights as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Nokia Corp., which with fellow sponsors anted up $50 million for the five-year project, Oxygen is a research endeavor at heart. But while developers work to innovate what Davis refers to as “the killer app, or technology that’s never been done by anyone else before,” the applications developed here could ultimately emerge in products from its vendor sponsors and others.

Here is a sampling of developments in the works:

Mobile Teleconference: This application can, according to its development team, enable an adaptive teleconference, meaning the lost connections and shoddy reception common in cell phone environments potentially could be a thing of the past. The application begins when an end user instructs a handheld computer, such as a cell phone, walkie-talkie or other PDA, to establish a communications link with another handheld computer.

The Oxygen system evaluates the available lines of communication and selects the best available link for the connections. If things change, the application will adjust and reconnect the two parties, choosing the best link from the available multimedia connections. This includes audio-only connections and text-based chat.

“You could imagine Nokia finding the Mobile Teleconference application useful in their products,” Davis says.

Resilient Overlay Networks: The RON application provides a similar service between IP addresses across the Internet. The system will route around failed Internet paths by sending data indirectly through other computers on the network. By constantly measuring the paths between its participating nodes (desktops and other computers connected via a network and identified by IP addresses), RON can determine which of those paths it should use to send the data. In addition to providing the fastest route across Internet hops, RON reduces packet loss and virtually eliminates latency, researchers say.

Companies such as RouteScience Technologies Inc., which offers route control software as a commercial product, and its customers might want to keep an eye on the development of this application.

Cricket Indoor Location System: It consists of beacons, sensors and a centralized console. Beacons, the noisiest in the lot, can be located in rooms, and they interact with sensors that can be attached to equipment such as wheelchairs in a hospital or chairs and desks in an office building. Likened to GPS systems, which use satellites to track locations outside, the Cricket System uses radio frequency and ultrasonic technology to more closely pinpoint the location of physical objects inside buildings.

The beacons passively listen and use ultrasonic, the ability to detect vibrations, with radio frequency to determine the exact location of a physical object within centimeters.

“Radio frequency sensors on the equipment tell the beacons, ‘Yes, I’m here,'” Davis explains, “and the ultrasonic tell them, ‘This is exactly where I am.'”

Scalable Location-Aware Monitoring: SLAM is a scalable network architecture for integrating sensor data or tag systems into distributed software applications. Sensors, much like the beacons used with the Cricket system, can be any commercially available appliance programmed to detect heat, humidity, temperature, movement and other physical environment elements.

Researchers say SLAM can, for example, track people in a burning building for the fire department to help firefighters more quickly evacuate people and extinguish a blaze.

The SLAM architecture also can use radio frequency identification technology to track merchandise for retailers looking to perform more accurate inventory and to offer more specific services to customers.

The current SLAM prototype uses routing protocols and a distributed streaming database system, called Medusa, to process sensor information.

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