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Pull on your shoes and boot up

They've really put their foot in it at MIT's Media Lab

Jan Libbenga
Sunday 08 September 1996 23:02 BST

"In the present, shoes can blink. In the future, shoes will think." This little ditty is hummed a lot by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in Boston these days. That's because the MIT Media Lab, which has pioneered the concept of multimedia for the past 10 years, has announced a new focus on some of the more basic things in life: clothes, coffee pots and sneakers.

Imagine this: you come home from a hard day's work. As you approach the entryway, your doorknob recognises you and the door automatically opens. Inside, the lights turn on and the CD player, sensing your need for relaxation, cues your favourite Mozart piano sonata. The carpet uploads the day's news into your shoes for personalised delivery to your glasses. Science fiction? Not really. The technology for this futuristic scenario already exists. Neil Gershenfeld, an assistant professor at the Media Lab, recently demonstrated a tiny computer that could be built into a pair of trainers.

A user could transmit his business card from his own shoe computer to a colleague's with a simple handshake. There is no magic involved. Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have shown that the non-contact coupling between the body and weak electric fields can be used to create and sense tiny nano-amp currents. Modulating these signals creates a Body Net, a personal area network that communicates through the skin and can be powered by walking.

Keeping data in the body avoids the intrusion of wires. A shoe computer could talk to a wrist display or to your glasses. Other devices could be used for detecting breathing and heart activity or may serve as ID badges. Hardware and software could merge into underwear.

"Just think about the engineered artefacts that we are surrounded by most of the time," says Richard Bolt, senior research scientist at the Media Lab. "We wear clothes, put on jewellery, sit on chairs and walk on carpets that all have the same profound failing: they are blind, deaf and dumb. Cufflinks don't link at all. Glasses help sight, but they don't see. We must expect more from our environment."

The work at the Media Lab is organised through a new research consortium called Things That Think, which is sponsored by big conglomerates like Philips, Siemens, Microsoft and Compaq and companies not traditionally involved in computing, such as Nike and Lego. The whole idea is to explore ways of moving computation beyond PCs and laptops, or, as researcher Tod Machover puts it, "unchain information from cumbersome boxes".

The consortium will focus on three technologies: first, sensing. Researchers at the Media Lab hope to develop ways for formerly passive objects to detect, transmit and deliver information about their environment. Just as department stores use anti-theft tags to store simple information, researchers are looking at ways to develop smarter tags to help objects sense people, and vice versa.

A second research project involves the development of hardware and software needed for intelligent things - including shoes and furniture - to communicate among themselves and with their users. Heat sensors, for example, could send messages to a thermostat to correct a room's temperature.

The Media Lab also wants to develop high-level tools to make everyday objects aware of, or at least sensitive to, human intentions and emotions. Researchers have already tested technologies for a new generation of computerised toys. Children can add behaviour to a Lego-face called LEGOHead, which is made of programmable bricks. Connect a mouth and Doctor LEGOHead starts to talk. Add some eyes and it will turn toward the light. LEGOHead will even recognise electronic name tags and respond to each one differently. It is almost as if Disney's latest animated film, Toy Story, comes to life.

Most of the applications the Media Lab envisages will be based on a technology known as "electric field sensing". Proximity sensors will eventually be able to build up a picture of their environment. Several "hyper-instruments" at the Media Lab already work on this principle.

These are odd-looking musical instruments that can be played without touching them. Small electric currents that run through the body will jump across a small air gap to electrodes on the surface of these instruments, so the electrodes become sensors for monitoring hand position. Some instruments can even be played as invisible piano keys in the air. The same technology is used to move a cursor on a computer screen by just pointing your finger at it, or to flip pages of an electronic newspaper by hand gestures.

The Media Lab also wants to connect "dumb" household appliances to computers and networks so that coffee pots could communicate with mugs about proper temperature and refills, and the alarm could receive updates from the airport to let you sleep longer if your plane is delayed. "Seymour Papert, professor of learning research at the Media Lab, recalled how he once wandered out of the kitchen and allowed a sauce he was cooking to burn," Richard Bolts explains. "While he blamed his own carelessness, it should be the pan that is responsible. A smart frying pan could signal when its contents are burning."

Advances in conducting polymers and reversible optical media are pointing towards fabrics that can literally become displays. How better to receive audio communications than through earrings, or to store information than in your shoulder pads? Footwear is particularly attractive for computing. To boot up, you put on your shoes. These items could make laptops, mobile phones and pagers - devices that at this moment are on poor speaking terms with each other - obsolete. "Perhaps the biggest decision will be whether to buy our clothes from the software store," suggests Nicholas Negroponte, the Media Lab's visionary director.

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