Ubiquitous Computing

EE Times writes about “a world in which computers and networks disappear into the background of smart rooms and buildings”, concluding that much work still needs to be done.

The concept initially sparked work in mobile tablets and software agents. Today’s efforts have morphed to pursue intelligent buildings packed with wireless sensor networks and displays, where information follows users wherever they go. “As computers proliferate, the kinds of relationships we have with them will be less based on input and output and more on sense and response,” said Joe McCarthy of Intel.

Researchers said that “ubicomp,” as the discipline is known, is not ready to emerge from the lab just yet. “There’s still a lot of work in how to build the distributed computing systems needed for ubiquitous computing,” said Steven Shafer of Microsoft. “There are a lot of systems research issues in creating reconfigurable, stable and ubiquitous environments. And underlying sensor research [is still] needed.”

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: TeleInfoCentre (Part 4)

WiFi can play a role today as a Wireless LAN, thus making it possible to locate the thin clients anywhere in the village in a 100-300 metre radius, with the hub (the wireless access point) being at the TeleInfoCentre. Thus, 5KPCs (Rs 5,000 personal computers) could be at nearby health centres or the homes of some of the villagers who could afford the solution. They would use the connectivity, computing and storage facilities provided at the TeleInfoCentre.

Besides the computers, the TeleInfoCentre also has other facilities. It has a printer for printing documents. It has a scanner to ensure that documents could be digitsed and then sent across as email attachments. In a way, this approach could replace fax using a store-and-forward approach, because the phone line may not be present or may not work. In fact, the scanner-printer combo would also work as a photocopying system.

A key issue which needs to be addressed is how the TeleInfoCentre will be powered. Electricity is intermittently available in much of Rural India. Without electricity, the TeleInfoCentre becomes a museum of digital gadgets! There are a few ideas on how we can consider solving the electricity problem.

The first approach could be to look at what the Jhai Foundation has done in Laos to power computers in remote areas. It is using a car battery with pedal power, via stationary bicycles imported from India. One minute of pedaling yields five minutes of power, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

The second approach is to create a 12-volt supply directly, powered by car batteries. Computer power supplies use 230/115 volts because they are meant to plug-in directly into the mains. In the case of the TeleInfoCentre, since all the devices are in a single room, one can look at directly using the 12 volt supply from car batteries (as in the first approach) without converting to the mains voltage. This will probably mean a slight redesign for the 5KPC, but the benefits would be well worth it.

The third approach is to consider the use of solar power. Much of Rural India is blessed with plenty of sunlight round-the-year. Can this be converted into a solution which can generate power cost-effectively? Talk about Solar Energy has been around for many years, but there have been few solutions which have become commercially available for electricity generation. So, I am not too confident that this will work, but it definitely should be considered.

A big consumer of power in the computer is going to be the monitor. The question is: can this be reduced? One could look at using smaller screens, but they would then take away the full-fledged desktop experience that we are trying to provide.

So, provisioning power for the TeleInfoCentre is a key challenge which needs to be addressed, along with that of connectivity.

Tomorrow: TeleInfoCentre Applications

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