Gadgets of the Future 'Disappear Into Your Life'

Imagine a world where blind people can find their most-prized possessions with the click of a button, adult children are alerted if grandma has fallen and can't get up and your cell phone fits inside your ear.

What sounds like a distant sci-fi-esque future is, in actuality, only a few years away, according to researchers at Georgia Tech's AWARE home, a two-story house in Atlanta, where scientists test emerging technologies years before those innovations reach your home, your car or your cell phone.

"[In 1998], it was clear that broadband networking was going to be reaching most homes," said Gregory Abowd, founder and director of Georgia Tech's AWARE Research Institute. "The high-level goal that we were trying to address is if you could make the home environment aware of the activities of the environment. ... What kind of valuable services could you build on top of it? ... What kinds of thing are people going to need?"

Using those questions as guiding principles, researchers began using the home as a testing ground when it was finally built in 2000. Now, the home hosts research for up to 40 projects at a time on everything from energy conservation to watching an aging grandmother.

One of those projects is Fetch, which allows visually impaired people to find items that they frequently use -- coffee mugs, glasses, cleaning products -- but often misplace.

Fetch started as a class project for Julie Kientz, now an assistant professor at the University of Washington, while she was pursuing her doctoral degree at Georgia Tech.

"We did a focus group with five people from [a] visually impaired services group in Atlanta. [We] just talked in general about the needs they have, what kind of current technology they use and what those technologies are lacking in getting them to accomplish their goals," Kientz said.

The main problem for this particular group, said Kientz, was finding objects quickly.

To remedy this situation, Kientz developed Fetch, a software program that can run on cell phones. Users can attach Bluetooth-activated tags to their cell phones that correspond with buttons and voice commands on the phone.

They could "pull the cell out of their pocket and say, 'Find coffee cup,' and then the cup will start beeping," Kientz said.

Kientz and her team tested Fetch in the AWARE home as well as out in the field.

When one woman couldn't find her water bottle after her husband moved it, she activated the program. "She could actually hear the water bottle beeping in their fridge," she said. "Another person used it for finding their luggage."

While working on a separate project, Thad Starner, an associate professor of computing, inadvertently created technology for what could be the next iPod.

Starner created the first version of the Gesture pendant, a brooch that controls any electronic device in your house by interpreting a user's hand gestures. In 2001 when Starner began his work, the Gesture was nothing more than a space-age-looking pin with infrared sensors that served as a sort of all-in-one remote control.

"When you're older, you lose some of your visual acuity. You can't see the buttons to know what you're pressing. The gesture pendant was designed to be a universal remote control," Starner said. "You just make ... hand gestures."

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