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'Smart sofa' aimed at couch potatoes

Scientists experiment with 'ubiquitous computing'

By Jeordan Legon
CNN

Scientist Mads Haahr sitting on his talking sofa.
Scientist Mads Haahr sits on his conversation piece: a talking sofa.

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COMPUTERS EVERYWHERE
Tech pioneer Mark Weiser, who coined the term "Ubiquitous computing," dreamt of a day when computers would disappear into objects used in daily life.

Weiser, who died in 1999 at 46, came up with the concept in 1988 while working at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.

The center is the birthplace of numerous innovations, including laser printing, Ethernet and the graphical user interface.
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(CNN) -- Serious couch potatoes may soon have sofas that order take-out, turn lights off automatically and tune the TV to their favorite programs, without them ever having to lift a finger.

The "smart sofa" being developed by scientists at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, contains programmable microchip sensors on each leg that determine who's sitting down based on the person's weight.

So far, the sofa can only deliver a personalized greeting to the person who plops down on it, but researcher Mads Haahr says students in his distributed-systems group envision a day when it will do a lot more: switch on household appliances, set the temperature in a room based on an individual's comfort level or even prompt the stereo to play the style of music that whomever is sitting prefers.

"The greater context is that you can build functionality into computers that allow them to be part of everyday objects and help us in ways that we won't even notice," Haahr said.

New wave of tech?

The concept is known as ubiquitous computing. The new wave of technology -- after the eras of the mainframe and the desktop -- envisions embedding tiny microprocessors into hundreds of objects and seamlessly linking them into networks. In theory, the wired gadgets could interact to meet and even predict a user's needs, constantly and invisibly tuning in to one's desires.

Researchers are having a hard time coming up with the killer application that can link devices and improve users' lives without creating huge disruptions or violating their privacy. But with appliance companies already introducing refrigerators and microwaves that serve up the Internet, and microchips getting smaller and cheaper, scientists are increasingly asking themselves, "What does it make sense to network?"

Their research continues to move technology away from the personal computer and into mobile gadgets. Take, for example, the smart watches introduced this year by Fossil Inc. Via a tiny, built-in FM receiver chip, they can display weather, headlines, instant messages and, oh yeah, the time.

The watch was conceived of by Microsoft's Smart Personal Objects Technology, or SPOT, initiative. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates believes SPOT could eventually power a whole slew of gadgets, but for now the software giant has developed only the smart watch, and prototypes of souped-up alarm clocks and refrigerator magnets.

"The potential for all these exciting devices, smart objects and services to enrich and enhance the way we live is truly amazing," Gates told participants in the International Consumer Electronics Show in January.

A Colorado professor who has wired his house to automatically adjust heating and lighting as needed says the key to the success of ubiquitous computing will be getting consumers to see the value in it.

At first some people questioned the sense of having the lights in his "adaptive house" adjust automatically, said University of Colorado at Boulder computer science professor Mike Mozer. But in time, Mozer said, his home, which is wired with dozens of sensors that monitor temperature, sound, motion, and door and window openings, conserves more energy and offers more convenience than regular houses.

"You do get used to it very quickly, and you really feel weird to have to turn on a light yourself," he said. "I kind of like this feeling of somebody watching me."

Beyond whims

"Smart sofa" researcher Haahr admits that at first glance it doesn't appear to have much use beyond fulfilling the whims of the extremely lazy. But he said the team working on the sofa hopes to one day use the technology to help elderly and disabled people.

Mike Mozer's 'Adaptive house' has sensors that control the temperature and lighting based on residents' habits.
Mike Mozer's "adaptive house" has sensors that control the temperature and lighting based on residents' habits.

The same technology also could, for example, let staff in assisted-living facilities know when an Alzheimer's patient wanders away from his or her bed.

"We'll see more of these objects coming into our lives," Haahr said. "It's not going to happen overnight."

And for those who are worried that all this convenience will cause humans to become even more sedentary and get fatter, Haahr said his team is prepared to consider the problem.

"We're hoping that people's weight won't vary so quickly," he said. "But it is something we'll have to deal with."


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