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Browsing the Real World

HP and NTT team up to bring URLs to everything around you.
January 23, 2001

Hate to lose touch with the Web when you wander? Researchers in the U.S. and Japan are working on technology that could provide real-world objects with their own Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), so that you can get personalized information about them as you move about with a wireless phone or computer.

This vision of Web-enabled “nomadicity” took another step last month when Hewlett-Packard announced a joint research project with NTT DoCoMo, the giant wireless telecommunications carrier based in Tokyo.

The companies will work on a fourth-generation (4G) wireless architecture dubbed Moto-Media that will not only bring high-performance streaming multimedia to mobile users but “explore new service concepts in which people, places, and things would be able to interact, bridging the real and cyber worlds.”

Research probably will focus on network infrastructure components, such as servers (one of Hewlett Packard’s strengths), encoding of multimedia content, and software “agents” that coordinate URLs and help users find information, just as agents on the wired Web already do. Don’t plan to ditch your PC, though: the technology will likely remain in labs for five years or more.

Welcome to CoolTown

The Moto-Media project is part of an existing HP research effort called CoolTown, which looks at ways to make wireless phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and other devices aware of nearby places and objects, says Hans Wolters, senior research scientist at HP Labs in Palo Alto.

Radio-based or infrared “beacons” or bar codes could be used to enter URLs into wireless devices, which would then call up the associated pages-say, product descriptions or tour guides-from the Web. “You could just pick up URLs of things that are for sale, and the URL will get you the availability and price,” Wolters says. You could tap the technology while traveling (for example, a bus-station URL might yield a schedule), or while playing multiplayer games, or doing wireless videoconferencing, he says.

While many of the futuristic applications could run on today’s typically monochrome screens, some will require the color displays, audio, and video of the regular Web. So some Moto-Media research will examine how to stream multimedia content over relatively low-bandwidth networks onto low-powered, space-constrained hardware. Certain issues that are virtually nonexistent in the wired world, such as handing off video feeds between transmitters, become major problems in wireless. “It’s really about how to make this all scaleable,” says Wolters.

The Moto-Media collaboration is scheduled to last three years, Wolters says, but products may be at least five years away, and they won’t necessarily be end-user devices. “It could be infrastructure solutions which are in the background that make it happen,” he says.

Location, Location, Location

Other major vendors, including cell-phone giants Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia, and wireless infrastructure providers such as Openwave Systems, are developing location-based products of their own.

One favored approach is to embed miniature global positioning system (GPS) receivers in phones and palmtops. HP and the others are considering other methods for identifying locations, such as cellular transmitters that help triangulate positions, or more traditional mechanisms such as zip codes and addresses.

Broadcasting the traditional Web’s rich content to untethered devices is the focus of separate but related efforts in wireless multimedia, including the Wireless Multimedia Forum, a 48-company consortium.

Among those in the vanguard is forum member GEO Interactive Media Group, which makes Emblaze chips and software for streaming media. Emblaze could appear in cellular phones from the likes of Ericsson and Samsung later this year, says Sasson Darwish, GEO’s president. Rival SolidStreaming also expects to see its streaming media technology incorporated into products this year.

Streaming video will enable new uses of wireless phones and palmtops. Imagine movie trailers broadcast outside theater box offices, and live pictures of traffic jams, Darwish says. Live remote views of “nanny-cams” and security cameras are also possible.

But Darwish predicts that the “killer app” will be video e-mail messages. “Like voice mail, it will change the way we do business,” he asserts.

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