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Many agree that as pervasive computing becomes more pervasive, the field may no longer be seen as an esoteric segment of technology, but simply as mainstream computing.

“Anytime, anywhere, any data” is the mantra of a fast-moving new technology called “pervasive computing.” Not surprisingly, Rensselaer graduates and researchers are helping to shape the future of this growing field.

By Peter Dizikes

When Jon Prial ’76 looks at a car, he doesn’t focus on the make, model, or color. What he sees is a vehicle that could be making life easier, if only it were loaded with an array of small, networked computers.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” asks Prial, a vice president at IBM, “when your car approaches 50,000 miles, if you got an e-mail at home that said: ‘By the way, your car needs its 50,000-mile checkup; we’ve checked your calendar and made an appointment for you for next Tuesday, to bring your car in.’”

Or, suggests Prial, drivers might want to have sensors on their cars that track safe driving habits that result in auto insurance discount. Or, perhaps, cars will communicate with others on the road during daily commutes, to locate traffic jams and suggest alternative routes during rush hours. Another device might run a standard series of diagnostic checks on your car. “Why is that dealer information?” Prial asks.

Such innovations, however, represent just one small corner of a burgeoning field of technological research: pervasive computing, the attempt to weave small, networked computing devices into the fabric of everyday life. These days, pervasive computing commands significant attention at companies like IBM — where Prial recently spent four years leading sales and marketing for the firm’s pervasive computing initiative — and has been an active area of research at Rensselaer since the mid-’90s. To bring together its diverse expertise in this field, Rensselaer last year founded a Center for Pervasive Computing and Networking.

While definitions of pervasive computing vary, the field lies at the intersection of two long-term trends: the production of smaller, more powerful processors, and the continued development of networks, especially wireless networks. Boleslaw Szymanski, professor of computer science and the founding director of the pervasive computing center, defines the subject as “the spread of little processors everywhere, and the ability of those processors to interact with each other.”

These days, that spread takes many forms. In some cases, computers are being added to familiar objects, like cars. But pervasive computing also means the proliferation of tiny networked sensors, including the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that could help businesses operate more efficiently. Linked to this is the development of increasingly sophisticated handheld devices that allow computing to become more mobile, and hence, more pervasive.

The result of these advances, says Prial, may be that in the future, computing will be invisible. “You don’t think about electricity — and pervasive computing will be even more pervasive, because you don’t even have to plug into anything.”

To this point, some of the most-publicized pervasive computing devices are tricked-out appliances, like the camera-equipped refrigerator IBM has sitting in its Austin, Texas, research laboratory. “Before you go home, you could look inside the fridge via Web cam and see if you need to buy milk,” says Prial. Such prototypes are admittedly years away from the market, however.

In fact, pervasive computing figures to produce numerous business applications before many consumer products become available. The highly touted RFID tags are seen as a replacement for bar codes on retail items. Because they use radio frequencies to communicate data, they could help businesses approach the sought-after “real-time” assessment of their inventories and supply chains, leading to greater efficiency and profitability. Already Wal-Mart has announced it would like its suppliers to be using RFID technology by 2006, while Costco is also studying the technology for its warehouse stores.

Many observers doubt Wal-Mart’s 2006 target date is a firm deadline, since RFID tags still need to become cheaper to be economical. And the tags themselves are just one element in supply-chain logistics. But RFID is part of a wave of pervasive technologies that aim to make remote sensors a standard part of business.

A related, promising avenue of innovation is the so-called “M2M” (machine-to-machine) sphere, in which wireless sensors monitor equipment in the manufacturing and power industries, in order to warn firms of impending failures. Such sensors could tell when a piece of equipment begins to falter — if it uses more energy than normal, for instance — and thus help companies to fix their physical assets and avert costly shutdowns. By keeping assembly lines rolling and power lines running, these sensors also would be a financial boon to the industrial world.

“There are tens of billions of dollars in the U.S. locked up in poor asset management,” says Glen Allmendinger, president of Harbor Research, a technology research and consulting firm, based in San Francisco and Boston, that focuses on pervasive technologies. Allmendinger also sees energy distribution and wireless security systems as large areas of growth for pervasive tools. Harbor Research forecasts that the worldwide market for completely networked pervasive devices will grow from $16 billion in 2003 to $102 billion by 2006.

There are also many applications for pervasive devices in medicine. Instead of clipboards and charts, for instance, doctors could carry around PDAs with patient information. Health-care organizations could streamline their medical records and also monitor their equipment better. “Health care could benefit vastly from pervasive computing in the future,” says Greg Powell, a consultant at SRIC-BI, a research and consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif.

On top of all this, the market for handheld devices continues to grow. Roughly 500 million cell phones were produced in 2003, many with an increasing number of functions, and researchers wonder if other familiar devices could be reinvented as well. Consider another prototype device IBM has developed in recent years: a standard-size wristwatch that communicates with other PCs and cell phones, receives condensed e-mails and pager messages, and has a calendar, address book, and to-do list. It tells time, too.

Sound extravagant? Remember that until recently, a cell phone that could also take photos seemed like something from a high-tech spy movie. As IBM’s manager for wearable computing at its T.J. Watson Research Center, Chandra Narayanaswami ’87 (who earned a master’s and Ph.D. from Rensselaer), puts it, pervasive computing means “taking the computing from your desk, putting it on a device with network access that you wear and constantly have with you, to allow you to do far more things than you could do with just a PC on your desk.”

Narayanaswami envisions the watch as a device interacting with other networked tools. People with medical conditions could use it as a display for other wearable health-monitoring devices. Or it could be swiped at the supermarket checkout counter instead of using a debit card. “We can take some of the functionality in your wallet and put it straight into your watch,” he says.

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Rensselaer Magazine: Summer 2004
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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

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