Imagine a future in which you could tell your computer to move a folder inside another, and just by pointing with your finger, it would happen. Or being able to command your computer to print your vacation pictures on the nearest color printer, and not have to supply any more configuration information.
While you're imagining these scenarios, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working on a project that could make these, and other new ways to interface with computers, a reality.
Called the Project Oxygen Alliance, the research and development efforts underway at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based school encompass as many as 200 to 300 researchers in the school's Lab for Computer Science (LCS) and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory working on a variety of projects, according to Stephen Garland, principal research scientist at the LCS.
The goal of the work is "to make it easier to interact with computers in natural, human terms," he said.
The alliance is working on a number of projects, including those listed above, and demonstrated a handful at its second annual meeting, held last week in Cambridge. Other projects underway within the alliance include: a natural language, multilingual conversation system that can understand and respond to normal speech; a computer aided design tool that can translate images from a whiteboard into design applications; a self-configuring, decentralized wireless network; a system that intelligently allocates resources for streaming media.
Though Garland wasn't sure when products using the technology developed by Project Oxygen might see the fluorescent light of day on retail shelves, some of the developments are ready to be taken up now, he said. "We try to push good ideas out the door (not market the products)", he said. Other products may take a few years, he added.
"The question is 'what's the market,'" he said.
Though the project is funded in part by the U.S. federal government agency DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and works closely with a number of private sector companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Nokia Corp. and Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, much of the work will be released into the public domain, Garland said. Some of it, however, may eventually be patented, he added.
Garland hopes that the technology developed by the alliance, however it makes its way to users, will change the way people interact with computers.
"Our hope is that people will get more useful benefits from technology, but be less aware that they're surrounded by it," he said. He points to electricity as a resource that works this way, in that it's ubiquitous, but also unobtrusive.
"We would like to move computing into the same category," he said.
In the long term, Garland said, perhaps the alliance's work will lead to more than just easier-to-use computers.
"One would like to think that this technology would increase leisure as well as productivity," he said.