- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. A new $50 million research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aims to banish computers as we know them into thin air.

The Oxygen Alliance is a five-year project designed to make computers as ubiquitous and invisible as oxygen. At least 250 MIT researchers will be involved in the project, which is getting funding from the federal government and six corporations.

Desktop computers and keyboards would go the way of the abacus replaced by small, hand-held devices and out-of-sight units embedded into walls and ceilings that respond to voices, not the click of a mouse.

"People should be able to communicate naturally with a machine, the same way that they do each other," said James R. Glass, one of the principal researchers working on the language aspect of Oxygen Project, the research portion of the alliance.

The project envisions a largely invisible computer network permeating homes, offices, cars and every other place where people live, work and play.

"Oxygen" would be a tapestry of technologies. The project started last fall with funding from the Defense Department and was expanded last Wednesday to include Acer Group, Delta Electronics Inc., Hewlett-Packard Corp., Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Co., Nokia Research Center and Philips Research.

It is not easy for members of the group to explain the "Oxygen" project. So many questions related to logistics and technology have yet to be answered.

"I'm very anxious to see machines that cater to human needs," said Michael L. Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, which is working with its sister lab, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"For 30 years plus, we have catered to the lowly needs of the machine," he said.

It was Mr. Dertouzos and four other researchers who proposed "Oxygen" to the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last year.

The ultimate goal is to unhitch people from the desktops to which they must now turn for their computing needs, according to John Ankcorn, the project's technical coordinator.

It would work with several devices.

• Enviro 21s: Units of sensors, microphones and cameras that would be built into homes, offices and vehicles to gather and send information.

• Handy 21s: Small handheld devices with video screens, a camera and possibly a global positioning system that would interact with the Enviros. It would combine features of cellular phones, handheld computers, radios, televisions and remote controls.

Finally, a network called the Net 21 would allow users to share information.

A key element to making the technology usable is speech. The Spoken Language Systems group at MIT has been working to create speech-recognition software that allows users to talk with computers as they do with each other.

The system would involve customized software. For example, one set of software would help run a doctor's office, while a factory would have another.

The Artificial Intelligence Lab is working on technology to help the computers identify people by their facial features, track where they go and determine what people are looking at.

"There are lots of things that are being tried. Some will work in some circumstances. Others will work in other circumstances," said Artificial Intelligence Lab director Rodney Brooks. "If we can get a community of a few hundred people using it … we can figure out what works and what doesn't."

That larger-scale test will begin three years from now, when the labs move into a new location. The building, currently being designed by architect Frank O. Gehry, who also designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, will be wired with "Oxygen" technology, Mr. Brooks said.

Mr. Brooks concedes the project presents thorny issues of privacy and security.

"Some of these solutions may have privacy issues that make them undesirable," Mr. Brooks said. "How do we feel about having microphones listening to what we're saying, and cameras looking at what we're doing?"

While the researchers are confident that the "Oxygen" concept will work, it is another question whether the public will accept it, said Mr. Ankcorn.

"If people are not able to do the same thing with these devices that they can do without these devices, then I, for one, would be the first to turn them off," he said.

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