Sun SPOT Project Could Help Usher in New Computing Era

Sun Microsystems is attempting to take the concept of pervasive computing into the mainstream with a new battery-operated platform for development of wireless sensor networks, robotics and personal consumer electronics.

Dubbed Project Sun Small Programmable Object Technology, or Sun SPOT, Sun hopes the Java-based platform will open the door to developers, educators, researchers and hobbyists to build creative applications for what it sees as the next era of computing — programming for the real world.

Computing is no longer just about PCs, laptops or even cell phones, but rather about the promise of pervasive computing — which will largely be enabled by sensors, said Glenn Edens, senior vice president for communications, media and entertainment, Sun Microsystems.

“This announcement will allow Java — just as it did with cell phones and the Internet — to play a pivotal role in enabling the coming wave of sensor-driven computing,” Edens said. Java powers more than 1.5 billion cell phones, 700 million PCs and millions of other devices — but can it empower pervasive computing?

Still Waiting…

“Java is not a particularly lightweight development platform. It has fairly substantial research requirements. That automatically implies that devices developed with this platform are going to be more expensive than other alternatives,” pervasive computing analyst Alex Ledin told TechNewsWorld. “That doesn’t necessarily mean the concept is doomed to failure, but it certainly raises some questions.”

In fact, the whole concept of pervasive computing raises questions. Twenty years ago, it seemed as though it would become commonplace within just a few years, but the reality is, the world is still waiting. In the meantime, chips have worked their way into all sorts of products, and homes appliances are being networked in smart homes.

“Idealists would look at this situation and say we are still a long way from pervasive computing,” Ledin said, “but, in retrospect, a lot of the things we take for granted certainly qualify as pervasive computing. We’ve become so accustomed to them that we no longer pay attention.”

Building Sensor Applications

Despite numerous failed “any day now” predictions, Sun is pressing forward with its plans. Powered by a small Java 2 Platform Micro Edition virtual machine written almost entirely in Java, Project Sun SPOT provides a way to build Java-based sensor applications that run directly on the central processing unit without any underlying operating system, according to Sun.

Near-term applications already in development include medical monitoring, package tracking and interactive home automation, Sun revealed. Applications might also include explorations of swarm intelligence, experimentation with and deployment of mesh networks, custom robotics and the development of new types of gestural interfaces.

Educators are already using Sun SPOTs and Java technology for classes on embedded programming, as well as in design classes for new consumer electronics, the company noted. The Sun Labs Project Sun SPOT technology evaluation kit will be sold on Sun’s Web site for US$499.

Mainstreaming Pervasive Computing

It is unlikely that pervasive computing will hit the mainstream anytime soon, Ledin said, pointing to manufacturers like Sony that have worked to allow end-users to transfer a motion picture from one device to another with a gesture. Some cell phones allow users to hang up a call by shaking the phone.

“Most companies have not been successful commercializing that type of technology,” Ledin said. “The major challenge with bringing pervasive computing to the mainstream is that computers don’t have the intelligence to perform certain tasks in a way that’s acceptable to ordinary people.”

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