Centerpiece of High End Computing: Cell Phones

UbiFit? UbiGreen? Coming soon to a cell phone near you.

Computer scientists are coming up with clever new ways to turn the cell phone of the near future into an environmental monitoring system that can tell if you're getting enough exercise, and if you could do just a little more to help make this planet more user-friendly. Someday soon, a cell phone could even let you know if grandma, who is suffering from early Alzheimer's, has wandered away from home, or left a boiling stew on the stove.

It's happening now because scientists finally have a computer that can sense and interact with the particular environment we are in, at any moment, day in and day out.

"The primary interesting use of computing in the future is going to be the cell phone," said James A. Landay, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. "The last two or three years has finally seen phones that have enough computation to do something beyond just small applications."

It can do a lot more than just communicate, its initial purpose.

Launching the Personal Computer Revolution of the Future

"With the addition of sensing, which they are all going to have, the cell phone can become the thing that understands the context of what you are doing in the real world, which has always been a problem with computers. They don't really know what we are doing. Now they can know and try to assist us by understanding what we are doing," even over a long period of time, Landay added in a telephone interview.

Landay is the project leader of a collaborative effort by researchers at the University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon University, and Intel, to find more ways to help the ubiquitous cell phone launch the personal computer revolution of the future.

Thus, UbiFit and UbiGreen will likely be looking over your shoulder in the years ahead. And they won't just be clever uses of computer technology. They will be active partners, helping us understand more about what's going on in our lives. Or at least, that's what the researchers expect to happen.

UbiFit uses a small sensor, an accelerator, worn on the waist to sense movements, thus keeping track of a fitness routine. It can distinguish between walking, jogging, and riding in a car. The sensor is already incorporated into some high end cell phones, and likely will be in all phones within two or three years.

A background display on the cell phone shows the data collected by the sensor. The display shows a green lawn at the beginning of the week, and flowers grow as the user works out, of varying colors depending on the type of exercise. If the user reaches a personal goal, a butterfly appears as a reward.

Similarly, UbiGreen shows a tree that puts out more leaves and flowers, if the user walks to work, or rides a bike, instead of driving a car. The idea, of course, is to provide a continuous record of the environmental impact of the user.

Reminders Make a Difference

Does it make a difference? Well, yes, according to Sunny Consolvo of Intel, who conducted an experiment during this season last year while completing doctoral studies at the University of Washington. Consolvo equipped 28 participants with cell phones that had UbiFit. Some of the phones collected the data and displayed the image. Some collected the data, but did not display the image. The results, she said, showed clearly that the display was a key motivational factor.

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