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Start-Up Builds Less Demanding Machines

Among Ishii's most intriguing research is the idea of digitally transmitting physical presence. When you move or squeeze something, it's recorded as a digital code and sent via computers to another location, where it is decoded and directs an identical object to move the same way. Another person holding or touching a replica of that same object feels it and senses your presence. At least, that's the idea. I tested the notion with wooden rolling pins connected via a cable; the result was a startling sense of physical connection with Ishii. We felt each other pushing the pin back and forth. Already, he said, cell phone manufacturers are experimenting with embedding his technology into phone handsets. He envisions the technology also helping to make videoconferencing more realistic.

Ishii said much of his work is rooted in an early childhood experience with an abacus that his mother gave him to keep him occupied and connected to her while she did bookkeeping nearby.

Jason Alonso, a technical assistant in the MIT Media Laboratory, shows the Sandscape system. Designed for urban planning, it relies on a special "sensetable" equipped with an infrared camera to permit 3D computer modeling of landscapes. (Leslie Walker - The Washington Post)

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"The abacus represents information in such a physical way," he said, holding one up. "You can directly touch, manipulate and even feel the information. You don't need a manual."

The company he helped inspire, Ambient Devices, has only nine full-time employees and contracts out most of its work, with manufacturing done in China and Taiwan. While it expects to sell 60,000 devices by the end of this year, Rose predicted it will sell five times that many in 2005.

On the drawing boards are new, fanciful ways to turn household objects into data receivers, said Rose. This week, the company planned to show off a health mirror prototype at a high-tech health conference. It has a built-in digital display with icons that flash to tell someone standing in front of the mirror about the status of their health.

Next month, the firm is planning to release a $150 desktop display called the "Dashboard," which relies on interchangeable digital cards to determine what the device does. Available cards will include reports on weather, local traffic, skiing conditions, air quality, stock portfolios, or even a company's sales.

The $80 "wireless wather forecaster" goes on sale at Radio Shack this month. (Courtesy Ambient Devices Inc.)
"It's very retro," said Rose. "It works like the first computers with punch cards. Each face card has little punch holes on the bottom that tell the device which card is inside."

Even if all these inventions flop miserably -- I mean, did anybody really buy one of those "SPOT" data wristwatches that Microsoft released in January? -- I remain a big believer that computing will become more intuitive once it hops off the desktop and gets embedded smartly in our surroundings.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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