Context-aware mobile devices

RIM, the maker of the fancy Blackberry devices, has filed a patent application for a technique that allows devices to ‘guess’ in what kind of environment they are:

The new Blackberrys would occasionally and very briefly vibrate. This should be too short to be mistaken for a message alert but just long enough for an accelerometer inside the device to measure how much it moves. This tells the Blackberry whether it is on top of a flat table, in a person’s hand or stuffed inside a pocket.

On a table, the Blackberry rings loudly to announce a call. Inside a pocket, it shuts off the screen to save power. And while in the palm of a hand, it leaves the screen lit but switches to vibrate when it has a message to deliver.

But that is only one way to guess the situation it’s in. If we call the above vibrate-and-sense method a kind of ‘feeling’, what if we took a look at all five senses?

  • feeling: the Blackberry already senses that last time it was used (for the screensaver function). It could also sense the last time it moved. If no movement, it is not carried by an active user, and e.g. should not use the vibration alert. The device could also monitor temperature and humidity to detect presence of a person.
  • seeing: a basic light sensor could detect day and night, or out/in a pocket or bag. In the dark, the screen lighting up when a call/message arrives has a totally different impact.
  • hearing: just monitoring background noise could tell a lot about the environment: is the user e.g. sleeping, and if so, does he snore. If background noise is > 100dB don’t use sound, only vibrate. If > 120dB, don’t even bother vibrating.
    Another way to measure might be like a radar-sensor: emit a sound of inaudible frequency and see how strong/fast it comes back.
  • smelling: biometric authentication! If the user holding the device does not smell like the owner, lock the screensaver.
  • tasting: let’s not go there. Oh wait, a tongue sensor that detects alcohol level: if too high, don’t let user send messages to his exes.

Watch out, at some point we all will give names to our mobile devices, and have actual conversations with them.

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