Once at a very nice Manhattan restaurant, I had the distinct feeling that the waiter knew what I wanted even before I did. As the thought began to form in my mind, he brought over a glass of velvety Merlot that was the perfect complement to the approaching game hens stuffed with pâté de foie gras.
While I would willingly repeat that pleasant though costly experience, I’m not so sure that I want my electronic gadgets to start getting the same idea. That kind of foresight is, however, the motivation behind the latest wave in technology, “context-aware computing.”
Electronics makers are seeking not only to help people accomplish the tasks they set out to do, but also to anticipate what they might want, or need, in the very near future. To do that, they will assess the “context” in which we find ourselves at any given moment, say getting through the customs line at Heathrow and looking ahead to lunch and perhaps a pint at a cozy London pub. Then the device will assess and set priorities for our options and offer suggestions. The way our gadgets will do this is by learning all about our likes, habits and needs and by keeping track of where we are and what’s around us.
“Future devices will constantly learn about you. They’ll learn your habits, the way you go through your day,” Intel Labs chief Justin Rattner said at a technology meeting recently. “They’ll know where you are, and more importantly, they’ll know where you are going. They’ll anticipate your needs. They’ll know your likes and dislikes.”
Whether having a device know all about your life and likes is a good thing depends on your point of view.
“Intel reveals the future of technology, and it’s curiously friendly,” one headline read, while another said, “Your next phone may read your mind.”
There is no argument that electronic devices have made it easier for us to communicate, navigate and learn about the world around us. The next step, from the developers’ perspective, is to take everything our devices learn about us and use it to figure out what we might want or need to do next. This goes well beyond “augmented reality” capabilities in which devices tell you about the world around you, such as the restaurants, shops and inns in a particular location. Context-aware computing wouldn’t just tell you what was there, but would also suggest what you might like, for instance a restaurant that serves the kind of food you like, done the way you like it in Washington, San Francisco or Amsterdam.
To reach that level, Intel envisages devices collecting, collating and analyzing data from a variety of hard and soft sources. That includes GPS, which tells your device where you are; accelerometers—used to great effect in the Nintendo Wii system—to determine whether you’re sitting, walking or running; as well as information from sources such as your appointment calendar. The device also would consider what you are currently using it for, such as email, Web surfing or social media applications.
Taking all this contextually aware information, your electronic companion could, for instance, suggest you leave early for that 10 a.m. meeting because of a traffic jam on the Interstate and offer you an alternate route.
For business travelers and tourists, Fodor’s unveiled a prototype device called a personal vacation assistant that would analyze information such as location, itinerary, previous preferences and calendar information to provide on-the-spot recommendations. The device could also assemble a travel blog with annotated photos and videos from a trip.
Such devices could have predictive health uses, such as a sensor that analyzes the gait of elderly people to warn when changes in the way they walk might increase the likelihood of a dangerous fall.
On a more mundane level, TV remotes could build profiles of the people who hold them by analyzing data such as how they hold the remote, at what angle they hold it, what buttons they push and how often they shake it. Then when a specific user picks up the remote, likely suggestions would appear on the TV screen, such as the football game, “Dirty Jobs” or “Mad Men.”
Technology companies realize that we have become very dependent on our gadgets and would like to make the relationship even more personal. That way our gadgets will become not just impersonal hardware but the “indispensable companions” that device makers would very much like them to be.