The telephone and e-mail are today’s quintessential relationship technologies, says Emmott, who left a position as a senior scientist at Bell Laboratories to head the new London lab. “Both are used to maintain and develop relationships, although they were designed as information technology.” In dreaming up the network-based relationship technologies of the future, Emmott says he and his staff want to “reach the non-computer-using consumer through invisible computing,’” and come up with devices and services as user-friendly and useful as the ubiquitous telephone.
That’s the philosophy at the heart of the Microwave Bank, says Sarah Woods, the Knowledge Lab research fellow who led the project. “More than 90 percent of the UK population have a microwave, but unlike the VCR, the biggest technophobes can use it,” says Woods. Employing a familiar, everyday appliance means users don’t have to be an Internet Einstein to access a full range of services available on the World Wide Web, says Woods, and it “demonstrates how things can be networked around the home.” She and her colleagues are also working on the “Thinking Bin,” a high-tech trashcan that would communicate with the Microwave Bank, adding discarded items to the shopping list or automatically sorting garbage for recycling.
With four (soon to be five) Knowledge Lab groups currently tackling some 30 projects (see “Structuring Knowledge” on last page), Emmott’s idea of invisible computing extends well beyond the kitchen. There’s a prototype secure system enabling micro-payments and communication via either the Internet or phone using everyday objects-rings or cufflinks might serve as tokens, increasing or decreasing in monetary value when waved at a point-of-sale device or ATM.
Researchers in the lab are also focusing on ways to put a friendlier face on desktop e-commerce. “Rei,” for example, is an interactive Internet soap opera that enables users to buy featured products with a click. For those looking for a collector’s item or a bargain, Knowledge Lab staff are developing a system that sends a squad of intelligent agents onto the Internet to hold and participate in online auctions, roaming through sites to meet the user’s criteria for buying and selling and developing strategies to optimize prices. In Emmott’s words: “eBay on testosterone.”
So far, 15 patents have been registered, making commercial exploitation of the Knowledge Lab’s activities a rising priority for NCR. Projects such as Microwave Bank have already gone as far as they can within the lab’s confines, Woods says. NCR executives plan to open a sister division whose mission will be taking Knowledge Lab concepts into production and out to market. Though the new division was scheduled for launch by the summer of 2000, its name, location, staff and structure were yet to be confirmed when TR went to press.