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Using Wireless to Organize and Save Lives

February 10, 2006

NEW YORK — Imagine a warning on your cell phone that tells you when a parent in ill health needs help, when you’ve eaten too much, or that you should avoid your regular commute because of a biohazard danger.

Forget mobile music and video. Wireless may end up running your life — down to when to wash your underwear.

This may sound far-fetched, but laboratories around the world are exploring such scenarios as wireless networks become more robust and amid moves to miniaturize electronic chips to the point where they can be discreetly placed into any product.

James Canton, president of Institute for Global Futures, a consultancy that advises on trends, says sensor chips may one day even be embedded into underwear to send laundry-related text or voice alerts to cell phones,

“It will tell you when it needs to get cleaned,” he said and suggested a potential prompt: “Stop using that bleach on me because it’s shrinking me and if I shrink any more, you’re not going to be able to wear me.”

Chip-embedded clothes could also help suppliers manage stocks. They could even provide consumers walking by a wirelessly linked ad with details, such as a sale on a matching shirt for the trousers the passerby is wearing.

Others foresee a prevalence of wireless sensors for potentially life-saving applications.

Professor John Guttag from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is studying how wirelessly connected medical devices, such as heart-monitor sensors, could automatically send warnings of a problem to the patient’s cell phone and then on to a relative or a doctor.

“If your elderly parent is having trouble breathing, you can’t rely on them to do something (like send a text message or make a call),” said Guttag who works in MIT’s electrical engineering and computer science department. “It would have to happen automatically.”

But Guttag said such devices would only work if they are sophisticated enough to avoid false alarms.

“The machine will have to be clever enough to tell the difference between fainting and having a nap,” he said. “The doctors will go nuts if hypochondriacs flood them with information every day.”

WIRELESS LIFE

Cell phones, software, computers and sensors can also work together to make our jobs easier and eliminate menial daily chores, according to researchers at the world’s biggest handset makers.

In the future, your computer will automatically switch on when you arrive at work and display documents for your first meeting, thanks to phone and PC-based sensors, said Tom MacTavish, a human interaction researcher at Motorola Inc.

“I had to do a whole bunch of stuff this morning that the computer and the cell phone of the future will together to do for me,” he said.

MacTavish believes voice-recognition technology on cell phones, which can be frustrating to use when it does not recognize context or accents, could improve with pattern-recognition technology.

For example, if you call John Jones at noon every day, your phone could remember this information and first suggest Jones rather than select a random John from your contacts.

Image-recognition technology is also being developed, which could help with law enforcement. For example, a wireless device that can read license plates could automatically link to a database to tell a police officer if the car was stolen or belonged to somebody with no speeding record.

Nokia also sees image-recognition technology aiding consumers by recognizing and labeling photographs taken on cell phones for albums or helping users remember locations.

“We could think of it like a memory prosthesis,” said Jyri Huopaniemi, Nokia’s head of strategic research.

Eventually we may be able to host a Web site from our phones to share holiday notes or create a personal diary.

Many forecasters see location-aware phones playing a major role in the future, providing such information as the history of a neighborhood, a list of its restaurants and data on crime rates and pollution levels. Others say they could alert users to environmental hazards or terrorist attacks.

But one analyst was skeptical about focusing on such sophisticated applications as he believes it will take years for more basic advances, such as simply connecting televisions and computers with wireless instead of cable.

“You could see a lot less cable everywhere,” said Stephen Baker of research firm NPD.




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