You Talk, It Checks on Your Laundry?

Imagine if your telephone could tell you how late the downtown bus would be, what floor of the parking garage had open spaces, or how long before the laundry machine in your building would be free to use. Students at Wake Forest University who volunteered to be early testers for a MobileU project don't have to imagine.

"Last year, I would lug my laundry down three floors to my dorm's basement only to discover that all the machines were in use," said Rob Laughter, a sophomore from Roaring River, N.C., who is studying psychology and communications. Now Laughter triggers a Web site and checks on the washing machines' availability by speaking into a Web-enabled cell phone.

"The phone can also track the position of the campus shuttle and let me know if it's going to be on time or how late it's running," he said.

Laughter volunteered for "technology quarters," part of the university's themed housing where students are exposed to cutting-edge innovations like automated lighting and ovens that defrost, roast, and keep a turkey warm all while the student is at class.

"It's exciting to be an early tester and helping to pioneer the technologies of the future. We have quarterly meetings, surveys, and communicate all the time through a listserv [e-mail group] where we can get help and give feedback to each other," he said.

Wake Forest is a private, liberal-arts university in Winston-Salem, N.C., that is considered a technological leader as far as university life is concerned. Since 1996, all 2,000 entering freshmen receive a portable computer, and they turn it in for a new laptop during their junior year. Wireless Internet access is also available inside and outside of the classroom.

IBM and Wake Forest have been running MobileU this semester to demonstrate speech-enabled Web applications on portable smart phones. The student talks into the device, and the device does what he or she says. No need to punch in keys.

A Learning Tool

Jay Dominick, the university's vice president for information services, said participation in the program added to the student's education.

"Asia Pacific students are already well ahead of U.S. students when it comes to using mobile technology because of the advanced infrastructure overseas," he said. "This initiative will aid in the parity with the Asian graduates. It gives our students a glimpse at what the future will be like and prepares them for their careers in an increasingly mobile world."

The project uses IBM's multimodal technology -- meaning many input and output sources like voice, keyboard and handwriting -- that can interface the spoken word with portable devices like phones and car-navigation systems to return useful information in real time using a global positioning system and Web servers that already have the data accessible.

As device sizes shrink, it becomes more difficult to peck away at the keyboard to get the current information users need. It's a lot more intuitive to speak commands into a phone, so the goal is to make getting information -- like the closest theater showing your favorite movie -- easy to receive in an instant.

"Nobody will look at you like you are strange for speaking into your phone. It's natural," said Igor Jablokov, program director for the IBM division running the project. "Without speech, the Web would be practically useless on mobile phones."

The conveniences and efficiency are translating into the workplace, too.

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