You are standing in a very large room.
It’s dark in here!
You see: a tableLamp, a chandelier, and spotlights.
turn on tableLamp
Okay. That’s better.
You see: a tableLamp, a chandelier, spotlights, a cdPlayer, a cassette player, a receiver, a TV, and a VCR.
The vcr is off.
turn vcr on
The vcr is on. It contains a tape labeled: “X Files (9/14/97)”.
vcr channel 5
I don’t know how to “press record”.
The vcr is recording in 2-hour SP format.
If you’ve ever played a Dungeons and Dragons style game on an old computer system supporting only a text interface, this odd little conversation may sound vaguely familiar. MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons, have evolved from their humble beginnings as custom programs where players combat each other and the computer in quests of fantasy. Today’s MUDs involve sophisticated databases (often including their own special-purpose programming languages) which can be customized to simulate any desired fictional world.
Or factual world, for that matter. This observation led Jen Mankoff at the Georgia Institute of Technology to explore ways in which online MUD databases could be used to mimic – and even interact with – real people and places in the physical world. Today, we are exploring ways in which domestic life can be enhanced by reflecting it in a “virtual” counterpart. This research is conducted under the banner “Domisilica” – with the mission of using technology to bring people and places together. In the near future, you may be sitting at work and realize that there is an important show you want to catch – and so you open a terminal session to your house’s MUD and ask it to tape the show for you.
Text is only the beginning
Domisilica is not focusing solely on text interfaces like the one depicted above. Because a MUD is really just a large database, there are many ways of viewing and manipulating it. An obvious alternative would be a graphical browser via the World Wide Web, and indeed the Domisilica MUD supports this functionality. Graphical floorplans of a house, and photographic icons of its contents, can be used for direct manipulation of a physical space. When coupled with cameras and digitizers, this allows you to remotely view your house over the Internet. If you have an electrically-operated lock on your front door, you could admit the plumber (and keep tabs on him) from your office, instead of taking the morning off just to wait for him to show up.
Operating lights automatically is nothing new to automation buffs. At Tech, we are very interested in new technologies for appliance automation. One of our projects is a CEBus controller which can give us detailed instrumentation in any building without rewiring. It includes a relay (for high-load appliances) and a dimmer (for incandescent lamps), an ambient light sensor (to determine when a room is in darkness), a motion sensor (for occupancy detection), an infrared transmitter (to control stereos, TVs, VCRs, and the like), and a temperature sensor (for climate control). One such controller in every room allows us to provide very detailed monitoring and control of an entire house.
The USRobotics Pilot may yet find its way into the Domisilica world as well. In a domestic environment, the Pilot could act as a “universal remote” whose work surface varied with the room it occupies. Thus as you walk from room to room with your Pilot, you would get controls appropriate to that room (i.e. if no TV is present, then no Channel buttons). If the Pilot is associated with a particular person, of course, then not only does the Pilot know which room of the house it is in – the room of the house knows who is in it. This may allow us to do some very interesting work with automatic call routing (ringing phones based on caller ID). The challenge, of course, is wireless communications to the Pilot – and more flexible protocols than HotSync. So before we tackle the long-term goal, two groups (a hardware team and a datacomm team) are working on long-reach infrared links to the Pilot for “roaming” through a building.
“Cyberizing” the world
Representing the physical world online is possible only if the physical world can be sensed and manipulated electronically. For example, the exchange at the beginning of this article implies that the VCR records data about the program content on each tape, either in the spare audio track or during the vertical blanking interval. This is relatively simple with electronic devices such as VCRs and Pilots. The problem becomes much more complex with very natural objects – fruits and vegetables, for example.
The “CyberFridge” project addresses this. CyberFridge examines the pivotal role which the refrigerator plays in domestic life. It consists of a real refrigerator in the College of Computing which has a flat-panel display on the door, as well as an integrated scale, camera, and barcode reader. As groceries are loaded into the fridge, they are inventoried in the MUD. For goods in prepackaged containers with UPC codes, you simply scan the barcode. Fruits and vegetables are placed on the scale; the camera automatically identifies each as it is weighed. As goods are consumed, they are also checked out of the MUD. An online recipe book allows you to ask the fridge if you have the raw materials to make your favorite dish – from anywhere in the world – or to ask what dishes can be prepared from the materials on hand.
But Domisilica is about much more than inventories. It’s about enriching people’s lives. In today’s society, the fridge is much more than a cold storage. Magnets clip our shopping lists, our favorite photographs, and our important ToDo lists to the fridge door. CyberFridge expands upon this. The display allows you to rotate photographs with the day of the week (or your mood of the moment); in fact, our fridge also has some “neural network art” in keeping with the spirit of the College. You can add or retrieve “Post It”-style notes from any computer on the Internet. Each family member can have their own “fridge scheme” containing the notes and pictures of interest to them. And scroll bars magically allow you to keep adding as many “magnets” as you wish, without running out of door space.
But soft… very soft
People should never have to adapt to technology. We already have plenty to do and learn. Ideally, any new technology should adapt to us, and allow us to accomplish more tasks with less effort. One research project in the works today is attempting to identify ways in which we can minimize disruptions in our daily routine. To do this, we are examining the distinction between attention, when your train of thought is focused on one thing, and awareness, when your subconscious mind has registered something but has not changed your focus from the target of your attention.
Awareness techniques require a rich and very dynamic environment. For example, imagine yourself working in a den or home study. In the background is the sound of waves breaking on a beach. A telephone call arrives, but instead of an unpleasant ring, the surf fades and a voice gently announces: “Your sister is calling on line 2.” You simply say: “Not now.” The house can infer that you don’t want any interruptions, so the next time a phone call arrives, it causes no interruption. Later, however, your spouse calls from their cellphone. As this is likely to be of interest to you, the house wants you to have some awareness of the call; however, it does not want to distract your attention. Therefore, the distant sound of a foghorn echoes softly across the breakers. Perhaps with each ring, the foghorn grows closer. If you are totally immersed in your work, you are likely to ignore this – which may be the desired effect. Conversely, if you’re finishing a task or are simply bored with work, the foghorn might slide from awareness into full attention – again, hopefully the desired effect.
The use of sonic icons and similar techniques can be used to represent all sorts of interesting events – a vehicle in the driveway, an arriving high-priority email, the first drops of rainfall. These extend our senses, giving us something akin to greatly-enhanced peripheral vision. Our hope is that these techniques will reverse the trends which give us a barrage of technological interruptions, and return our lives to a more organized, steadier, and calmer flow of thoughts and actions.