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My IBM Vacation

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It was a beautiful autumn day. Leaves were turning, so with a borrowed car, I played hooky and went for a rare and pleasant drive. Others might meander more contemplatively through the bucolic countryside of Northern Westchester… admiring the sweet sadness of a summer's end. But why should I be distracted by mere pastoral visions when, carved out of these same Westchester forests, the grand behemoth IBM has created a technological haven for geeks like me?

Others may enjoy theme parks like "Donkeyland" or "Wet 'n Wild Kingdom" but for me, I'll take Big Blue's "TechnoWorld" any day. Boringly called the "Industry Solution Lab", IBM's gadget haven is located in Hawthorne, just 25 miles north of New York City. Behind the doors of this secure research facility is a technology showroom that offers insights into near-present and far-off future technology. Since everybody can't wrangle a day-pass into this world of adventure, let me take you along on my tour.

Before even entering Hawthorne labs, you are confronted with the majestic genius of Leonardo DaVinci: dozens of his greatest inventions are carved in working wooden models that leap out at you as if torn from his precious notebooks. IBM continues to lead the world each year for the most patents and this homage to DaVinci seems designed to keep egos of the resident inventors in check. Yet each of the researchers we met could scarcely contain their enthusiasm and glee.

First, researcher Ray Hitney showed me "Mobile Land." (I must confess that the theme park names were definitely not IBM's idea, but they seemed to work for us.) With a handheld device called an "Infoscope Client", Ray showed us how your handheld PDA will allow travelers to capture text in Chinese for example (the little thing has a built-in video camera!) and will translate the Chinese characters into English. Ray had another mobile device, equipped with a thumb-print verifier and every form of wireless connectivity imaginable that allowed customers to interact with intelligent kiosks and vending machines. Imagine the soda machine knowing who you are, even what brand you prefer, and allowing a secure and cashless transaction. So, as Ray and I used this handheld device (getting more and more bottles of cold soda out of the "smart" machine) it became clear that today's handheld organizers would evolve to give consumers more intelligence as they shopped. Your handheld device in the near future will not only remind you of tasks but find the things you need to buy at the best prices and make transactions more secure. To top it off, with such technology in your next generation handheld phone or organizer, you'll be able to capture foreign language text on the road and translate it into something that makes sense to you.

Ray deftly distracted me (just as I was about to pocket a handheld prototype or two) with a modular computer they call the Metapad. The whole notion of the portable computer has become obsolete with this cigarette pack sized brain-in-a-box. Instead of carrying a large unit around, you would take this fast "brain unit" and attach it where you need it. Out in the street, you would slip a small screen on your "Metapad" and have full computer functionality in an ultra-portable unit. Arrive at work, and your "Metapad" would snap into a wall unit with all your colleagues' units, allowing powerful controlled sharing of information and computer processing. Just as I tried to swipe that device, another talented researcher, Jay Murdoch steered me to "Auto World."

Since we do so much in our cars, IBM has been studying how are cars (and the technology inside them) can do more for us. Wearing a headset in a mockup of a car, Jay simulated a drive in the car of the future. (They call this device the "Conversational Interface for Telematics", in case you wanted to be confused.) We told the car we wanted to go to the airport and the car displayed a map of the best route along with the latest update of road conditions. Nothing new, but then the lovely natural-sounding synthesized voice of our "artificial passenger" started chiming in with other helpful information. "Our plane is running late" she said and offered to find a restaurant nearby in accordance with the driver's preferences. "She" (the "artificial passenger" or backseat driver know-it-all) read incoming email and forwarded messages to acquaintances. "Would we like to play a game?" she asked. Then Jay and the robot played an infernal round of "name that country and western tunes," in which Jay had to guess what music the robot was playing. This went on and on: roadside assistance information, temperature controls, music management, information management, and even interactions between the "artificial passenger" and driver just to keep the driver awake.

Another demonstration at "Auto World" showed how future vehicles would have far more sophisticated awareness of automotive function, location, and other data that would help the driver avoid needing roadside assistance. IBM clearly spent considerable time figuring out how to gather useful information and protect the privacy of that information. For example, your car will "know" you are driving faster than the speed limit but your "artificial passenger" will not pass this handy information on to your insurance company or the state police, for example. Just when Jay asked his intelligent driving assistant to play another dozen mournful Charlie Daniels tunes, IBM's Jennifer Lai saved the day and took us next to "Office Park."

The Steelcase company and IBM are collaborating on turning the office cubicle into something a little less nauseating. Imagine showing up in an office that knows when you're there and when you leave. A host of handy controls are within easy reach and the office adjusts to your needs: the temperature you prefer, the computer programs you need displayed, the pictures of your family or your cat or your favorite who-knows-what displayed as you appear. Tired of busybodies sandbagging you in your office? Your office lights can show visitors when you are receptive and when you want them to stay the heck away. An "Everywhere Display" (actually a LCD video projector with a special moveable mirror and camera sensor) intelligently moves information around your office to where you need it. For example, should a visitor want to collaborate on a project, the display moves your work to a shared space on the desk. Sensors determine where you and your visitors are and can unobtrusively hide information when nosy folks meander in. With an "Active Badge", office workers can move their settings, information, programs, email, even telephones from one office to the next… and not feel like they are in an impersonal, unfeeling workspace.

No visit to a theme park is complete without snacks, so our visit included a stop at "Veggie Village", home of IBM's banana recognizer. That's right, folks, IBM has finally come up with a product that can spot the difference between rutabaga and arugula. IBM's chief fruit & vegetable differentiator Teresita Krueger (no, seriously, this researcher is amazing) showed how "Veggie Vision" worked: an inexpensive camera sees peaches, plums, prunes, pomegranates and, wham-o, the computer displays what you've got. Think that's easy? Most supermarket checkout folks use the "consensus method": hold up an unknown green thing with stringy leaves and get all the other cashiers to opine on what species they behold. (The default answer is "$1.29") But Teresita is enraptured by fruit detecting algorithms: mathematical formulas that narrow down the choice to the most logical. We had a blast getting the right answers as we put parsnips and parsley, persimmons, and... I think you get the idea. It could even tell when you put your wallet on the counter. My favorite moment was when I actually put my head under the camera and it correctly identified my head as a red cabbage.

Our next researcher, Malgorzata Stys, gleefully whisked us off to see IBM's "Multilingual Speech to Speech Machine Translation." IBM set out to solve a tough problem: how to make an English-speaking doctor intelligible to someone who only speaks Chinese. This new software lets the doctor speak into a microphone, which translates the text into Chinese on the fly. Since voice recognition and computer translation is usually error-rich, the computer also shows what it "thinks" the doctor said in Chinese. It even verifies the translation back into English so the patient is unlikely to get wrong idea. (Speaking of cool IBM Language translation software, you should try out IBM's fascinating Websphere software on my main page. With a click of a button, the website is translated in real-time from my already dubious English into Portuguese, Spanish, and Chinese, Japanese, German, Italian and other languages.)

My IBM hosts kindly showed us about 75 other neat things and we'll share more of these later (especially the incredible security technology recently developed to insure your signature can only be used by you.) But all theme parks shut down, and after a couple of hours the nice security people kindly escorted me out of the building after a pretty thorough body cavity search. The nice thing is I know I'll be back.

By Daniel Dubno