Help! I need Oxygen!

I finished listening to Michael Dertouzos’ book The Unfinished Revolution: Making Computers Human-Centric this week and I was intrigued by his vision. It didn’t seem particularly revolutionary because he wrote the book in the year 2000, when ubiquitous computing was the apple of every VC‘s eye. Plus, he talks about the Semantic Web and various other things that are old news to me. I was about ready to brush the book off after disc three of five, but I decided to persevere.

My persistence was amply rewarded by discs four and five. There he laid out his Laboratory of Computing Science at MIT‘s Oxygen Project. This was a $50 million research project involving a slew of corporate partners and hundreds of MIT researchers working on the production of a prototype ubiquitous computing system. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a vision of computing where several systems are seamlessly integrated to provide you with computing resources ready and available at a moment’s notice. In other words, the quintessential dream of the dot-com era: your car talks to your home which talks to your grocer, etc. This is all the stuff we’ve heard before is just around the perennial corner.

Oxygen, though, is a little different. It consists of three major systems: a handheld H21, household E21s, and a N21 to tie them all together. The idea is that these things would all be oriented around making your life easier and the use of speech as the interface. The H21 would act as an interface and collaborator with the E21s in your home and office. There’s also a whole slew of software technologies to enable these pieces of hardware to interoperate.

The project started in 1999 and will be winding up in 2004 (perhaps 2005). It looks Intel-centric, unfortunately, but since the underlying operating system is Linux, it’s entirely possible that it could be portable to the Mac. Plus, it appears that they’re going to open-source the entire results of their research (which makes sense since they’re being funded by DARPA). It’s yet another project whose progress I’ll be following.

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