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MIT Wants to Make Computing as Easy as Breathing

One ambitious premise of Oxygen is integrating many cutting-edge technologies into a single, behind-the-scenes system to let people move around freely while still retaining access to computing resources, such as printers and databases. Accomplishing that means speech-recognition software has to work with visual-recognition software as well as sensor networks that track people's movements.

MIT's attempts to develop such a complex computing environment have led to unusual experiments, including creation of a cluster of 1,020 microphones powered by the RAW chip. Agarwal showed off the microphone bank on my recent visit, explaining that it uses special software to correlate sounds picked up by the microphones with video footage shot in the same room. The idea is to help microphones identify and track a single speaker through a crowded, noisy room.

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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"We just made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest acoustic microphone array," he said.

Other components of Oxygen include software for processing language at a deeper level than ordinary speech recognition, to help computers decipher meaning. There is also an indoor sensor network for tracking people and things called Cricket, which relies on the simultaneous transmission of radio and ultrasound signals.

Along with Nokia and Philips Electronics, one big Oxygen sponsor has been Hewlett-Packard. Already, Oxygen research has helped shape handheld computing and virtual meeting technologies emerging at HP.

Fred Kitson, director of HP's Mobile & Media Systems Lab, said Oxygen's early work influenced a virtual studio collaboration system that HP is developing for Dreamworks. The software will let Dreamworks moviemakers in three cities collaborate online in a simulated studio, but it also has potential in other industries.

"We have business aspirations around it, and we have an organization around it to bring it to market," he said.

Kitson said HP experimented with MIT's Cricket system for pinpointing the whereabouts of people indoors but ultimately rejected it in favor of other sensor technologies. He was skeptical of the reprogrammable chip concept, acknowledging there is widespread disagreement in the industry about the strategic value of the approach.

The whimsical new home of MIT's computer sciences lab, called the Stata Center, was designed by architect Frank Gehry. ((Leslie Walker - The Washington Post))
"Part of what we expect Oxygen to do is push the boundary and show what's possible," Kitson added. Later, "we will worry about the pragmatic implications."

Agarwal would be among the first to agree that MIT researchers push boundaries, and he thinks they have still barely scratched the surface of what such ideas will soon make possible.

The changes he foresaw eight years ago when he started thinking about reprogrammable chips are now materializing, he said, and they're big.

"By 2007 or 2010, we are going to have an ungodly amount of logic on a chip," Agarwal said. That's roughly 1,000 times the computing power a chip had in 1990.

"What that means is computing becomes essentially free," he said. "We can pretty much do whatever we want to do on a single chip of silicon."

As to what that ultimately will mean, he shrugged: "The true impact is unfathomable."

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

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