Howie Shrobe’s light fixtures are misbehaving this morning. When the principal research scientist in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory instructs the system that automates parts of his office to “stay awake,” a voice emanating from a set of speakers obediently replies, “At your service.” And when Shrobe, SM ‘75, PhD ‘78, tells the system, “Close the drapes,” they magically glide shut, blocking out all light from the seemingly normal office. But when he says, “Turn on the lights,” nothing happens. Shrobe leans a little closer to the microphone array that sits on his desktop computer and repeats the command a little louder. When the room gives him the silent treatment again, he quickly types something on a keyboard; the lights turn on. He smiles and admits that he was playing around with the system a little this morning, which might explain why it’s acting up. After all, it is a work in progress.
Shrobe’s computerized office is just one of dozens of pervasive-computing technologies being developed as part of Project Oxygen, the lab’s five-year, $50 million effort to design computer systems that are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe and as easy to communicate with as other people. The end result, as originally envisioned by Michael Dertouzos, PhD ‘64, the late director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, is expected to be a collection of technologies embedded in workplaces and homes working together seamlessly-and often behind the scenes-to help us go about our daily lives. More than 150 MIT researchers have contributed to the effort, as well as staff from the project’s six industrial partners, which include Nokia and Hewlett-Packard. Now in its fourth year, the project is turning out working prototypes, including workspaces that adjust themselves according to their inhabitants’ habits, location-aware sensors that help people find their way around buildings, and computer chips that configure themselves to best suit different applications. In the process, the project has brought together researchers from many disciplines who may not have otherwise collaborated, often with unexpected results.