Gadgets designed at CMU work off gestures, brain signals

| Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

Gestris is a cool game, but don't expect to see it on store shelves next to Nintendo Wii systems anytime soon.

Players use body gestures -- but no controller or special clothing -- to move pieces on a big screen in the Tetris-style game that researchers at the Intel Corp.'s Pittsburgh Research Lab developed.

"It's a little showcase," Intel's Padmananabhan "Babu" Pillai said Tuesday as the lab at Carnegie Mellon University's Collaborative Innovation Center showed off its latest futuristic work at an open house.

"In the future, we would like to enable much richer interfaces in the home. Imagine that you could point to the TV and say, 'Volume up,' " he said.

Computers and robots that read humans' wants and needs more easily than ever before -- making the mouse, game controller and other gadgets relics of the past -- were a common theme among the dozens of projects demonstrated.

Intel opened its local center eight years ago, and 23 researchers now collaborate with faculty from universities including CMU and the University of Pittsburgh, medical experts from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center -- plus 20 to 25 students at any given time.

"Mostly, Intel research is engaged in trying to understand where computing is going. And where it is going is a combined enterprise of hardware and software and, ultimately, human beings," said Andrew A. Chien, vice president and director of research at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company.

Intel, the world's biggest maker of microprocessors -- the brain in every computer -- has 11 research centers near universities.

Machines, in other words, must interact with people in more natural ways, reading their gestures and even brain signals. "That's where we see the future as being," said Rahul Sukthankar, senior principal research scientist at the Pittsburgh lab.

"It's no longer just spreadsheets and word processers. It's really interacting with humans in their environment."

Beyond gesture or voice recognition, computers might respond to facial expressions or realize when a person is thinking about airplanes, for example, just by reading brain activity patterns consistent with that topic.

"Long range, you might be able to think about an object and do a Web search, for example" without touching a keyboard, researcher Dean Pomerleau said.

Several projects center on health care. One tracks the growth of stem cells, while another compares images of a patient's suspicious-looking mole to thousands of other pictures in a large database to help detect skin cancer. "Doctors told us a lot of times, they are not quite sure about what they are seeing," researcher Mei Chen said.

Another, necklace-like device could help dieters. Most people eat more than they realize, said CMU computer scientist Jie Yang, who worked on the project.

But a tiny computer could recognize food items on a plate, compile calorie and fat data for every meal and factor in the wearer's activity for the day. Standard, fast-food fare from major restaurant chains is being used to test the system, he said.

Intel also is dabbling in home computer networks that transfer data faster, using the combined wireless capabilities of the devices in a whole neighborhood. Users could borrow capacity from neighbors when they need it to send large files.

"One of the things I cannot do very effectively today is show my baby to my mother in Greece," researcher Dina Papagiannaki said, adding she and partner Michael Kaminsky have talked with Verizon Communications Corp. and other Internet service providers and were surprised to find, "They liked this idea."

Intel's Jason Campbell described projects that could use millions of tiny sphere-like computers to build objects that change their shape upon command.

Rather than drawing an object on a screen, "it appears out of a vat on your desk," he said. And everyday objects such as a cell phone could change form to provide the user with a keyboard, or fit around his ear.

Lily Mummert keeps honeybees at her home in North Strabane in Washington County, and in her role with Intel, she's developing a video system that measures the activity of bee colonies without impeding their movement as current technologies that use infrared sensors might.

Given worldwide declines in bee populations, "With this, maybe we could catch a colony collapsing early enough to do something about it," she said.

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