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.
"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.
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.
"The background display was definitely one of the biggest wins of our study," Consolvo said.
It's a small study, of course, but it suggested that if someone is reminded constantly of whether fitness goals are being met, it's harder to be a couch potato. It's the long-term impact that is important, Landay said.
"How do you get fit or healthy? You don't just go down to the gym today," Landay added. "It's something that happens over a long period, and it happens in many different places."
The cell phone monitors all the places where exercise occurs -- walking the dog, riding a bike to work -- not just the gym.
"Little things that could change your life also have an impact," Landay said.
Landay thinks UbiFit and UbiGreen will have a considerable impact on many lives, but he also thinks these two innovative programs are just the "tip of the iceberg."
"Right now, phones are pretty dumb. They ring when you are in meetings, because they don't know what you are doing," he said. "With simple sensing it could really know what you are doing and react the way it would if you had a decent assistant who knew you were in a meeting so don't ring."
Landay sees many other diverse applications, ranging from teaching a foreign language to improving the care of elders, "making it possible for grandma to stay in her own home instead of having to go into some kind of nursing facilities." Other sensors could interact with the phone, telling, for example, if grandma picks up a skillet, or falls down.
It's hard to learn a foreign language because few of us can learn it the easiest way, by immersing ourselves in the culture and the environment of the language. Instead, we try to learn it in a classroom.
But a really smart phone could sense that its owner is sitting in a train station, and it could behave accordingly.
The cell phone could take advantage of that situation by starting to ask questions about trains, and traveling, and the culture of Mexico -- in Spanish.
One of the neat things about cell phones is they are getting better and better at detecting exactly where we are at any given moment. Some high end cell phones already have GPS, but that doesn't always work, especially when surrounded by high rise buildings.
But cell phones have other means, including triangulation of signals from cell towers and even Wi-Fi transmitters. So even if you're lost, your cell phone will soon know where you are.
But where will it all end? Extrapolating from this inventive research, one can see cell phones equipped with mechanical noses, recognizing toxic pollutants, and maybe whether there is a strong odor of alcohol when you slip into the driver's seat. An automatic call home could save the day.
The cell phone could become the ultimate monitor of our activities, helping us achieve personal goals, warning us of nearby danger, possibly alerting others when we have done something to jeopardize our own safety.
It's not Big Brother. It's our pocket companion, and it could someday know more about us than we know ourselves.