Crackpot tech: Pervasive computing

How many times have you missed an important phone call because you were in a meeting? Or wasted 15 minutes searching the building for one of your co-workers? Or sent an important job to the printer, only find that it’s out of toner? Fear not; top technology minds are at work on these problems, and more.

Imagine a meeting room that records the identities of everyone who enters it and updates an availability database, allowing urgent calls to be routed accordingly. Every office could do the same, making it possible to track down anyone, anywhere in the building. Meanwhile, your networked printer could monitor its own toner levels and compare them to past usage patterns, then use its internal Internet connection to place an order for replacement toner when the time is right. With automation like this, your office could be running like clockwork in no time.

Welcome to pervasive computing, a future that promises a chip in every pot and a smart card in every garage. Instead of a desktop PC that acts as the hub for your digital needs, pervasive computing envisions a seamless web of embedded devices, all working behind the scenes to track and manage your day-to-day tasks.

In a fully pervasive computing world, even the concept of a digital device begins to blur. Computers won’t be limited to metal boxes, glowing screens, and arcane UIs. Instead, they’ll be hidden away in your clothes, your wallet, and your office walls.

It sounds like something out of the Jetsons, and indeed, pervasive computing is an idea almost as old as the personal computer itself. But it may be closer than you think. Historians credit Mark Weiser of Xerox Parc with inventing it in the 1980s, and since then, researchers at the likes of HP, IBM, and MIT’s Media Lab have built on Weiser’s work. Recent years have already seen such innovations as computerized car locks and RFID-enabled passports, for example.

But just because we can build it doesn’t mean we should. Ignore the privacy implications for now. In today’s economy, what company would be willing to pay for it? Building a mesh of tiny microprocessors into everyday objects is a frivolous expense compared with the laundry list of tasks facing today’s cash-strapped IT departments. After all, just how hard is it to order printer toner, really?

-- Neil McAllister

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