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MIT Wants to Make Computing as Easy as Breathing

By Leslie Walker
The Washington Post
Thursday, November 18, 2004; Page E01


Anant Agarwal led me from his bright corner office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology down a hall to his glass-walled research lab, warning that I would laugh when I saw the latest "handheld" computer built to test his futuristic microprocessor.

I howled at the geeky contraption, which seemed so big and awkward that only the Jolly Green Giant would consider it a handheld. But Agarwal, an MIT professor and researcher, explained that the prototype wasn't about size or shape.

Anant Agarwal shows the "loud array" of microphones, part of a prototype for a new computing environment invented at MIT. (Leslie Walker -- The Washington Post)

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It was about the invisible wiring on its silicon chip, designed so it can be reprogrammed to allow one device to perform many tasks, allowing a cell phone to morph suddenly into a TV or scanner. Today's computer chips, by contrast, are pre-wired with fixed sets of instructions.

Agarwal wants to redesign chip software and hardware for the mobile age, creating chips that can power chameleon devices. If devices were chameleon-like, he reasons that people could get more done with less gear, theoretically making computing more mobile. Also, devices embedded in "intelligent" rooms and stationary objects could accomplish more simply by retrieving new instruction sets.

"Call it a universal logic chip that can do anything," Agarwal said.

His reprogrammable chip -- called RAW for "raw architecture workstation" -- is one of many key pieces in MIT's $50 million Project Oxygen, which has involved more than 150 researchers and is in its fifth year. The lofty goal of the project, funded partly by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is to create a new computing environment, in which computer firepower would be ubiquitous and manipulating computers as easy for people as breathing.

The RAW chip prototype was designed by Anant Agarwal and a colleague and was manufactured by IBM. ((Leslie Walker - The Washington Post))
Oxygen researchers want people to throw away the mouse and talk to their computers, some of which would be embedded in walls and ceilings. Oxygen was one of many efforts exploring pervasive computing launched by large universities and technology corporations during the dot-com boom.

In 2000, Project Oxygen began the "technology transfer" process of giving prototypes to its six corporate sponsors and exploring the creation of companies to sell the technology. The MIT team also is working on two possible operating systems to combine the many pieces of the Oxygen puzzle; one is called O2s and the other MetaGlue.

"In the first two or three years, it was like letting a thousand flowers bloom," said Victor Zue, director of MIT's Laboratory of Computer Science and a leader of the project. "Everybody was doing their own thing. Then about a year ago, we started developing the operating system, which needs a lot of properties, including the ability to be rapidly configurable."

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