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Pervasive computing: You are what you compute

A recent Harvard University panel looked at new enterprise markets, such as self-healing wireless networks, that are made possible by pervasive computing.

TINY computers that blend into the fabric of our daily lives are starting to help us live healthier lives, predict the breakdown of our machines -- and may potentially invade our privacy.

Panelists at Harvard University's Cyberposium 2003 discussed "Pervasive Computing: The Gap Between Vision and Reality." But the speakers began with descriptions of how their companies today are developing and selling products and services that rely on tiny, often unseen chips that broadcast information about their environments.

At MIT, researchers are studying how dime-sized sensors located in light switches, medicine cabinet doors, chairs, and other invisible locations throughout the house can help with biometric health monitoring, said Stephen Intille, technology director for MIT's Changing Places /House_n. The goal: Keep the elderly living at home as long as possible, reducing healthcare costs and providing peace of mind to families.

Unlocking the data stored in sensors and other chips is the business of Axeda, which sells devices that track real-time performance of medical, office and industrial equipment, and reports back to owners using the Internet. The devices can be used to help predict failures, aid remote maintenance, and allow manufacturers to see how customers use their products, said Richard Barnwell, vice president of services.

While there are some 150 million CPUs, or central processing units, in computers worldwide, there are 7.5 billion micro controllers -- chips that act as sensing and control devices. For the most part, these chips are deaf and blind, not in touch with their environment, said Robert Poor, chief technical officer of Ember Corp. Ember is developing wireless networks that connect micro controllers, such as the chips that control the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in buildings. The networks can automatically hand off and reroute signals, ensuring a "self-healing" network with no single point of failure.

In addition to commercial and industrial applications, these nearly invisible computers, and wearable computers, will help consumers with their desire to get rid of all the gadgets proliferating in their lives, said MIT professor Sandy Pentland, director of research for MIT Lab Asia. We won't carry them, we'll wear them.

Early markets, emerging opportunities

Panelists said markets for pervasive computing are emerging. Axeda customers spend on average $400,000 for the company's remote sensing and diagnostic devices, but realize up to $700,000 in savings the year through more effective preventative maintenance and other benefits, Barnwell said. A potentially large market could be sensors that report remotely the activity logged by usage-based equipment such as photocopiers and printers. Today, a person is dispatched to read usage meters on those devices.

If you make remote sensors simple enough, people will put them in the home if they see a reason for doing so, said Intille, of Changing Places/House_N. And preventative health care is certainly one such motivator because healthcare prices are so high. Pentland said he could foresee family members buying such systems for aging parents. "They want to take care of them and feel connected," Pentland said.

An audience member asked about the privacy implications of all these small data-gathering devices spreading around home and work. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Center for eBusiness at MIT, recalled that traffic cameras scattered throughout Singapore have been used to spy on people.

But Barnwell said monitoring devices used in a healthcare setting are subject to strict regulation. His company's devices, for example, cannot be placed directly on a piece of medical equipment in some cases; it must reside nearby.

Intille noted that home sensors would be used with the permission of the user. He said also that people should be more concerned with the arrival of cell phones that report your location via GPS satellite. "I'll know you are in a parking lot next to a cancer treatment center," he said. But because phones give value, there is not as much talk about these kinds of potential abuses.

Another audience member wondered about the batteries that will power all these devices. Who is going to change them all when they get used up?

One solution being researched, said Pentland, is to grab power from the air all around us; energy given off by radio signals and other technologies.

To read more articles like this one, visit HBS Working Knowledge, an online source for business analysis, information and research.

© 2003 President and Fellows of Harvard College

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