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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January 2004, 11:46 GMT
Phones get to know their place
Dot.life - Where tech meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Bryn Terfel as Falstaff, AP
Your phone does not know if you are watching an opera
Most gadgets that you own are arrogant snobs that resist, rather than embrace, the chance to talk to another piece of hardware.

With coaxing, and cables, they will swap data with their digital kin but most are happier keeping their own counsel.

They also tend to be blissfully unaware of their surroundings, and rarely change what they do to cope.

But gadgets look set to get smarter and more aware of the context around them thanks to some good design (and lots of technology).

Context is king

The majority of mobile phones in use in the UK are on second-generation (2G) networks that, at best, can locate a handset to within a 100m or so.

Such imprecision makes it hard to work out if users are close to a coffee shop, hospital, parking meter or cash machine.

Some services are starting to appear for such networks, such as TagandScan, which can label real world objects with tags that can be read only when you are in range.

The tags can either be public and read by anyone, or limited to a few friends. Eventually users might be checking the tags on a restaurant to see what the service was like before walking in off the street..

Such services will improve with third-generation (3G) networks which can locate handsets down to about 10-20 metres.

Slowly short-range radio technologies, such as Bluetooth, are helping gadgets learn more about their surroundings.

In Japan so-called contextual communication is growing rapidly.

Some folk are using their phones as active badges that let their owners know if any friends are in the same bar or area of town.

Others help look for new friends and partners by advertising the likes, dislikes, turn-ons and turn-offs to any other gadget that will listen.

Other handsets use good design to know about their surroundings. One handset fitted with a lightmeter rings loudly if it is in a dark bag but mutes the ring tone once it makes it into daylight.

Lorenzo Wood, chief scientist at technology research firm Oyster Labs, said technology has always constrained the way we communicate.

For instance, he says, telegraphy had a very rigid format for the writing and sending of messages. Only now is it becoming possible to shake off some of those constraints, he says.

"We're looking at what can we do to improve a particular communication situation, how we can improve communication by identifying some aspects of context at one end," he says.

Handset help

Possible examples include handsets that tell callers where you are so they can decide whether to continue with the call.

Their reaction might vary, he says, if they are told their friend is in the pub or in the car.

"Just communicating the fact that you are in a car would create an amount of tension because people are aware of that," he says. "You do not want to sound like you are fobbing them off but you could let your telephone do it for you."

Antibiotics, BBC
Contextual communications could help hospitals
"The telephone could be telling the caller what's going on, that the driver is slowing down and will talk to them soon."

Handsets could ask if the call was urgent, if callers would rather leave a message or turn it into something like an instant message where each side of the chat says something and then waits for a response.

It is not just phone users that could benefit from gadgets that know more about who and where they are.

Andrew Ward, chief technology officer at Ubisense, said the firm was working on an ambient communication system that uses a technology called Ultra-Wideband (UWB).

This gives users enormous amounts of bandwidth over short distances and can act as a location system that pinpoints objects to within a few centimetres.

Mr Ward says Ubisense was developing a system for hospitals that helps people do their jobs better.

The UWB system could remotely configure any piece of kit fitted with a transmitter freeing nursing staff to care for patients.

The system can also work out who was holding a tablet PC and tune the information it was showing in response.

Nurses dispensing drugs would see different information to counsellors, consultants or doctors.

He says: "The gadgets have some idea of what is happening in the world around them and make people's lives easier or simpler."

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