Buddies or Stalkers? Gadgets That Really Know Us Are Coming

The brave new world of technology will include devices that change our whole relationship to them and, perhaps, to the world around us. That’s according to Intel CTO Justin Rattner, who outlined the future of “context-sensitive” computing at his keynote address to the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco this week.

The new class of context-aware gadgets will gather information on their users through what Rattner called both “hard” and “soft” sensors. This data will be collated and used to offer suggestions to users based on what the device understands to be their personal needs.

As an example, he explained how a person’s computer might ascertain that there is a traffic jam on a preferred route to work. Thus, the computer might alert the user to leave home early so as not to be late.

Hard and Soft Sensors

The matter of hard sensors already is standard and familiar for many users. Take the accelerometer on Apple’s iPhone, for example. It senses the position of the device and rotates the information on the screen accordingly. Functions such as this create rich, interactive interfaces, and allow development of software such as multimedia games.

The same goes for GPS functions. Most users of mobile devices already expect the thing to know where they are and, if asked, help them find their destination. People get a little squirmy, though, when they start to wonder if anyone can view their location through the GPS function. Witness the furor over Facebook’s Places service.

The soft sensor concept is even trickier, especially when its results are combined with hard-sensor data. To provide an example, Tim Jarrell, vice president and publisher of Fodor’s Travel, joined Rattner onstage at the developers’ meeting. Jarrell showed Fodor’s experimental Personal Vacation Assistant running on a mobile Internet device and designed in conjunction with Intel.

The PVA uses a variety of context sources — such as personal travel preferences, previous activities, current location and calendar information — to provide real-time travel recommendations to vacationers. At the user’s request, the PVA can even generate a travel blog, said Jarrell, complete with annotated photos and videos visited during the trip.

How Much Help Do We Want?

However imminent is the development of such technology, we may not be ready for it, said Josh Martin, senior analyst with Strategy Analytics. That assessment is based on his firm’s experiences with what current iterations of predictive tools.

Take, for example, spell-check functions in email and word processing programs. They are wildly out of context in many instances, he told TechNewsWorld, even though they purportedly gather information on words a user commonly writes.

“So, if my spell check can’t figure out what word I intended with any accuracy,” Martin wondered, “then is it fair to expect a phone to know what I want to eat before I even know? And how long are people willing to get the wrong suggestions before giving up on a technology?”

Smartphone and computer users already have some negative experiences on which to base their opinions of such technology, Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

“If people see [context-sensitive tools] as a creepy stalking thing by advertisers, the phone company, or the carrier, they won’t like it at all — and Google’s behavior is certainly causing them to drift in that direction,” Enderle stressed.

Pitfalls Ahead

Done right, though, context-aware devices might be able to garner positive reactions and get some traction, Enderle added.

He suggested the example of a user preparing for a wedding. In that case, “seeing lots of stuff on weddings could be very well received and, if done right, enjoyable.”

In the case of a jilted fiance, though, information on a wedding could be infuriating.

“While I agree that this is clearly where we are going,” Enderle explained, “the path to getting there may be particularly painful.”

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