New Cell Phone a Whole lot Smarter


By Jon Van
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – A new generation of cell phones that know where you are, what you’re doing and anticipate what you’ll like is being developed in labs and tested in markets around the globe.

Industry designers hope to strike a balance between a gadget that will learn enough to please its owner without becoming annoying.

“We want it like having a concierge in your pocket, not Big Brother,” said Martin Dunsby, senior vice president with Openwave Systems, a wireless software firm.

Called “presence” technology, the new gadgetry is intended to make portable devices easier to use.

The system will combine knowledge about where someone’s phone is with his calendar schedule, sending incoming calls to voice mail when he’s in a conference. Eventually, the system may turn up his home heating system 10 minutes before he arrives.

IBM researchers last month announced a test in collaboration with Telenor, a Norwegian telecom.

“There are a lot of sensors and information sources,” said Vova Soroka, research manager for IBM’s lab in Haifa, Israel. “They have motion sensors and biosensors of all kinds. You could even tell from a sensor in the phone whether someone is walking or bicycling.”

While there’s no simple way to design a device that will cater to owners without stalking or bugging them, Soroka said one key is allowing customers to opt in to services.

“We want someone to just click once to get a service without requiring them to fill out long profiles,” Soroka said. “If you’re in the market for a car, you could click into that, and your phone would tell you about cars for sale in your vicinity. Once you buy a car, you click out and get on with life, never getting any more of that information.”

IBM has already unveiled something like that in India, a business finder technology that helps customers find taxis, plumbers, carpenters or even physicians who are nearby.

“The business finder technology combines sophisticated geographic information and data analysis with mobile telephone systems,” said Daniel Dias, director of IBM’s India research lab.

Last week, MasterCard announced a new service whereby customers can call a phone number, state their coordinates and receive a text message directing them to the nearest automatic teller machine. Presumably in the future, a single click on the cell phone would produce such information.

Wireless industry standards for third generation data networks are intended to accommodate such presence technology applications, and many believe that phones must become more intuitive for customers to get full use of new technology.

“The screen and keyboard are too small for people to wade through all these menus to get to what’s useful to them,” said Openware’s Dunsby. “There are 2 billion wireless phones on the planet and all of them work pretty much the same way. They have icons that take you to applications.

“But does someone who never plays games needs to see the game icon every time he wants to change his calendar?”

Phones that pay attention to what an individual does will begin dropping or burying functions that never get used while giving new prominence to those that are used, Dunsby said.

It will be like a music service Openwave has designed that enables users to hit a button whenever their channel provides a tune they don’t wish to hear. Eventually, the system learns to screen out such tunes.

“It’s sophisticated math based on group behavior that helps anticipate what people in the group like and what they don’t like,” said Dunsby.

No matter how much the industry tries to avoid annoying customers with its new smart technology, some people will be irritated, predicts Bernard Beck, an emeritus associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University.

“Some people were upset with Amazon making recommendations of what they should read,” said Beck. “The message was fine-tuned to say others who bought this liked that. They made it less condescending, less in your face.”

Technologists need to pay special attention to the interfaces whenever a machine starts advising humans what to do, Beck said.

“There was a while when new cars had little voices that announced when your door wasn’t closed or your seat belt was unbuckled,” he said. “The car companies found out people didn’t like being scolded by a voice. Now you mostly hear ring tones to remind you to buckle up or close the door.

“They learned to do that by trial and error, and that’s what will happen as phones get smarter.”

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