Hearing Voices

 One student-prototyped system will manage your cell calls. Another will, if needed, give you a verbal 'kick in the butt.'

August 5, 2004

For a preview of what tomorrow's products may be, visit the Rapid Prototyping of Computer Systems course at Carnegie Mellon. Each semester, students in this capstone design course try to meet a real-world need by combining pieces of existing and emerging technologies into something new.

Past projects have included an integrated system of advanced driver-assist devices, prototyped for General Motors, and a wireless digital field manual for service technicians, prototyped for Adtranz. But the project that has drawn most attention thus far is the context-aware cell phone.

This is a cell phone meant to be less distracting, and more helpful, than the usual kind. Prototyped by the spring 2003 class, it has been written up in major media such as The New York Times and is now in further development.

The phone is called SenSay. Basically, it senses where you are and what you're doing, then responds as you have programmed it to do. For instance, from your pre-loaded schedule and a GPS reading it can deduce you're in a conference. And if a microphone in the system detects that you are now speaking at the conference, SenSay could automatically deny any incoming call and send a text-message to the caller saying that (a) you are busy, but (b) if the matter is urgent, please ring right back, and this time the call will go through. That could be handy if a colleague is phoning to say you'd better change some data in the talk you are giving.

Or, if SenSay detects a high level of ambient sound late at night, and a built-in accelerometer shows you are moving around energetically, then you must be at a concert: the phone will ring or vibrate extra-hard so you don't miss it. If the data reveals you to be sitting idly somewhere at midday, SenSay might "ping" either you or people who've been trying to reach you, announcing that now would be a good time to connect.

The SenSay prototype built by the class did not have all the required gear in one compact unit, but it could do the kinds of things mentioned. Faculty research scientist Asim Smailagic and others are carrying the work forward.

A side effect of rapid prototyping is that a product can be criticized in the media before it exists. Wired News ran a story in which privacy experts warned that SenSay could be used to track the activities of the user, while other critics simply called the system techno-overkill. But bringing the potential downsides to light is in fact one of the purposes of rapid prototyping – and Research Professor Asim Smailagic says the concerns are now being addressed.

Moreover the whole notion of building intelligent, context-aware systems has spurred a raft of promising spin-off ideas among ECE students.

In another course, Mobile Computing Systems and Applications, master's student Jonathan Pui and three teammates conceived and prototyped a product that also is now in further development. This one, the Personal Wellness Coach, is an armband unit you would wear while exercising.

Along with a pulse-rate monitor for aerobic exercise, such as running, the unit has an accelerometer chip to count the reps while you are lifting weights or doing sit-ups or pull-ups. Your training routine and goals for each exercise can be programmed in. And, with audio and voice prompts, the Personal Wellness Coach will coach you along – even urging you to squeeze out a couple more reps on the weight bench.

Pui and his student teammates have been refining the product themselves, field-testing it at the University Center gym and at local health clubs. "People like it," he said. "And we're learning useful things, like the fact that different people respond to different kinds of voices. Some people prefer a sexy, coaxing voice. Other people prefer a military-sergeant kick-in-the-butt voice."

The team presented the prototype of the Personal Wellness Coach at the MERITS of Pittsburgh Conference in January 2004 and was awarded 1st place for the student poster contest. They were awarded the 2004 Enterprise Award by the Carnegie Mellon Don Jones Center of Entrepreneurship, and were finalists in the Mary Furlong $10K Baby Boomer Business Plan Challenge in San Francisco in May 2004.

They have submitted a paper for this fall's IEEE Wearables Conference, are filing for patents and have written a business plan for a startup.

Reprinted with permission from Electrical and Computer Engineering Currents, Summer 2004. Text by Mike Vargo; Photography by Larry Rippel.

Personal Wellness Coach, a context-aware armband unit that urges you on during exercise.

(L to R) Ramy Asselin, Guillermo Ortiz, Jonathon Pui and Christian Kissling, student developers of the Personal Wellness Coach, were finalists at the Boomer Business Plan Challenge in San Francisco this Spring.