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Computing Now Exclusive Content — August 2010

News Archive

July 2012

Gig.U Project Aims for an Ultrafast US Internet

June 2012

Bringing Location and Navigation Technology Indoors

May 2012

Plans Under Way for Roaming between Cellular and Wi-Fi Networks

Encryption System Flaw Threatens Internet Security

April 2012

For Business Intelligence, the Trend Is Location, Location, Location

Corpus Linguistics Keep Up-to-Date with Language

March 2012

Are Tomorrow's Firewalls Finally Here Today?

February 2012

Spatial Humanities Brings History to Life

December 2011

Could Hackers Take Your Car for a Ride?

November 2011

What to Do about Supercookies?

October 2011

Lights, Camera, Virtual Moviemaking

September 2011

Revolutionizing Wall Street with News Analytics

August 2011

Growing Network-Encryption Use Puts Systems at Risk

New Project Could Promote Semantic Web

July 2011

FBI Employs New Botnet Eradication Tactics

Google and Twitter "Like" Social Indexing

June 2011

Computing Commodities Market in the Cloud

May 2011

Intel Chips Step up to 3D

Apple Programming Error Raises Privacy Concerns

Thunderbolt Promises Lightning Speed

April 2011

Industrial Control Systems Face More Security Challenges

Microsoft Effort Takes Down Massive Botnet

March 2011

IP Addresses Getting Security Upgrade

February 2011

Studios Agree on DRM Infrastructure

January 2011

New Web Protocol Promises to Reduce Browser Latency

To Be or NAT to Be?

December 2010

Intel Gets inside the Helmet

Tuning Body-to-Body Networks with RF Modeling

November 2010

New Wi-Fi Spec Simplifies Connectivity

Expanded Top-Level Domains Could Spur Internet Real Estate Boom

October 2010

New Weapon in War on Botnets

September 2010

Content-Centered Internet Architecture Gets a Boost

Gesturing Going Mainstream

August 2010

Is Context-Aware Computing Ready for the Limelight?

Flexible Routing in the Cloud

Signal Congestion Rejuvenates Interest in Cell Paging-Channel Protocol

July 2010

New Protocol Improves Interaction among Networked Devices and Applications

Security for Domain Name System Takes a Big Step Forward

The ROADM to Smarter Optical Networking

Distributed Cache Goes Mainstream

June 2010

New Application Protects Mobile-Phone Passwords

WiGig Alliance Reveals Ultrafast Wireless Specification

Cognitive Radio Adds Intelligence to Wireless Technology

May 2010

New Product Uses Light Connections in Blade Server

April 2010

Browser Fingerprints Threaten Privacy

New Animation Technique Uses Motion Frequencies to Shake Trees

March 2010

Researchers Take Promising Approach to Chemical Computing

Screen-Capture Programming: What You See is What You Script

Research Project Sends Data Wirelessly at High Speeds via Light

February 2010

Faster Testing for Complex Software Systems

IEEE 802.1Qbg/h to Simplify Data Center Virtual LAN Management

Distributed Data-Analysis Approach Gains Popularity

Twitter Tweak Helps Haiti Relief Effort

January 2010

2010 Rings in Some Y2K-like Problems

Infrastructure Sensors Improve Home Monitoring

Internet Search Takes a Semantic Turn

December 2009

Phase-Change Memory Technology Moves toward Mass Production

IBM Crowdsources Translation Software

Digital Ants Promise New Security Paradigm

November 2009

Program Uses Mobile Technology to Help with Crises

More Cores Keep Power Down

White-Space Networking Goes Live

Mobile Web 2.0 Experiences Growing Pains

October 2009

More Spectrum Sought for Body Sensor Networks

Optics for Universal I/O and Speed

High-Performance Computing Adds Virtualization to the Mix

ICANN Accountability Goes Multinational

RFID Tags Chat Their Way to Energy Efficiency

September 2009

Delay-Tolerant Networks in Your Pocket

Flash Cookies Stir Privacy Concerns

Addressing the Challenge of Cloud-Computing Interoperability

Ephemeralizing the Web

August 2009

Bluetooth Speeds Up

Grids Get Closer

DCN Gets Ready for Production

The Sims Meet Science

Sexy Space Threat Comes to Mobile Phones

July 2009

WiGig Alliance Makes Push for HD Specification

New Dilemnas, Same Principles:
Changing Landscape Requires IT Ethics to Go Mainstream

Synthetic DNS Stirs Controversy:
Why Breaking Is a Good Thing

New Approach Fights Microchip Piracy

Technique Makes Strong Encryption Easier to Use

New Adobe Flash Streams Internet Directly to TVs

June 2009

Aging Satellites Spark GPS Concerns

The Changing World of Outsourcing

North American CS Enrollment Rises for First Time in Seven Years

Materials Breakthrough Could Eliminate Bootups

April 2009

Trusted Computing Shapes Self-Encrypting Drives

March 2009

Google, Publishers to Try New Advertising Methods

Siftables Offer New Interaction Model for Serious Games

Hulu Boxed In by Media Conglomerates

February 2009

Chips on Verge of Reaching 32 nm Nodes

Hathaway to Lead Cybersecurity Review

A Match Made in Heaven: Gaming Enters the Cloud

January 2009

Government Support Could Spell Big Year for Open Source

25 Reasons For Better Programming

Web Guide Turns Playstation 3 Consoles into Supercomputing Cluster

Flagbearers for Technology: Contemporary Techniques Showcase US Artifact and European Treasures

December 2008

.Tel TLD Debuts As New Way to Network

Science Exchange

November 2008

The Future is Reconfigurable

Is Context-Aware Computing Ready for the Limelight?

by George Lawton

Context-aware computing — which leverages information about users and their environments to improve the interactions among them — has been around for almost two decades. However, it has been implemented commercially only in limited applications, such as those using location information to find nearby friends or stores.

This has occurred mainly because of a lack of relevant standards, few devices with the capabilities necessary to perform context-aware computing, and limited sources of context-related information to draw on.

Now though, context-aware computing is ready to take off, due to significant improvements in social networking, mobile technology, smart phones, and sensor networks, said University of Colorado associate professor Rick Han.

In addition, researchers have become better at combining location-based, presence, social-network-profile, and other data to determine a user's context, said William Clark, research director at market research firm Gartner Inc.

Because of this, vendors and researchers are beginning to release more advanced context-aware computing applications such as recommendation engines that run on  mobile phones, and better customer-service and information-management tools.

However, the technology still faces technical and marketplace challenges, such as those related to privacy and data integration.

Background

Some of the early ideas behind context-aware computing came from ubiquitous-computing research conducted at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the early 1990s. This cutting-edge research required customized and expensive hardware, software, and networks.

Today, though, many of these formerly-advanced technologies are affordable and widely available. "The price of hardware has come down considerably. And everyone with a smart phone has a context-aware device," said Carnegie Mellon University associate professor Anind K. Dey.

In the early 1990s, putting sensors on devices wasn't easy, according to Bo Begole, a principle scientist and manager of PARC's Ubiquitous Computing Group. Now, he said, that is simple.

Products

Over time, various vendors have introduced CA tools and hardware, such as Cisco Systems' Collaboration in Motion, Avaya's Aura, Rearden Commerce's Rearden Personal Assistant, several AeroScout products, several Appear Networks products based on its Appear Context Engine, and RES Software's RES PowerFuse.

Goals and Research Focus

Context-aware computing's goal is to let systems react to users based on their environments.

For example, a user could employ a context-aware system to look for a movie and theater. The application would combine information about the location of the user and nearby theaters, the users' film-preference history, the current time, and upcoming movie schedule to find an appropriate nearby show.

Context-aware computing can also improve business processes such as sales, inventory, scheduling, and purchasing by tailoring the way an application presents information to customers and employees, formulating suggestions, and automating some parts of the decision-making process.

For example, a sales application might prominently list the products that customers purchased in the past to make it easier for them to find what they want, or it might suggest sales-call opportunities based on a customer's buying history.

The technology could also improve customer-service interactions by providing company representatives with information about customers and even suggesting new products they might want.

Context-aware-related research leverages work in various areas including sensors, social networking, semantic analysis, location awareness, activity recognition, and machine learning.

How It Works

Context-aware systems make decisions and provide information based on multiple sources of information about users and from applications — acting as sensors — that gather data from users and their surroundings.

A basic system includes a contextually responsive application and hardware elements such as PCs, sensors, and switches.

Some of the most useful sources of contextual data include location (captured, for example, from a GPS system), identity (from information a system gathers about a user), activity (such as from a smart-phone-based to-do list), and time (from the system clock).

A smart phone is well-suited to context-aware computing because it brings together multiple data streams, including those related to user location and movement, and communications history.

Today, context-aware systems can also gather information from social networks.

Once they have acquired data, systems must understand the context that the data represents and determine its relevance to user queries and activities. Semantic technologies make it easier for systems to sort through, organize, aggregate, and interpret data streams.

Ultimately, context-aware systems must identify what actions to take based on the information. They can use expert systems to make decisions by determining how an organization's rules apply to the semantic analysis of context-related data.

Current Uses

Organizations have employed context-enriched services on a limited basis.

For example, airlines use the technology to provide relevant information — such as weather conditions at destinations — to customers via the Web, telephone, or applications such as e-mail, said Venkatesh Krishnaswamy, senior manager with Avaya's Emerging Technologies and Products Division.

Retailers have deployed context-aware systems to track a customer’s presence on their website and to start an interaction — such as trying to sell a specific product — based on context like the visitor's activity or navigation patterns.

Corporations use the technology to work with employee information such as communications patterns and collaboration histories to, for example, present the people most frequently contacted at the top of an employee's personalized contact list.

Some corporations use context-aware computing to optimize and economize their companywide software-configuration process, added Jim Kirby, RES Software’s president for the Americas. RES tools analyze users' context to automatically recognize which software they work with, and then configure their workspaces with only the necessary applications. This reduces software-licensing overhead.

The New Context

The rise and increased availability of location-based technology and social networking have helped make context-aware computing easier to implement.

Location-Based Technology

Systems can acquire considerable relevant data about users from their locations, as revealed by GPS readings or geolocation sensors.

"The development of standardized interfaces for exchange of location data between applications is a key enabler," said Avaya's Krishnaswamy.

And, he added, "Several start-ups are beginning to offer services such as semantically rich mapping data, real-time traffic information, location-aware advertising or promotions, and location-aware social networking."

Several Considerations

According to the University of Colorado's Han, "The content on social networks can provide a whole new set of context that was not available before."

If users allow a context-aware application to access their social networking data, the system could then collect relevant information.

The technology could also help implement policies regarding presence, which describes a user's willingness and availability to communicate. Context awareness could help automatically set users' presence settings based on their preferences and activity, as well as the time of day.

As the technology grows and captures more data, privacy could become a concern. Efforts to improve authorization, authentication, and accounting could increase trust in context-aware systems, which could encourage adoption.

Advances in networks, mobile hardware capabilities, social computing, service-oriented architecture, and unified communication will make building and using context-enriched services easier.

Opportunities

Context-aware computing can help businesses by increasing efficiency, thereby reducing costs and improving workforce effectiveness.

By gathering relevant information about customers, the technology also improves the sales, product development, and service processes. This would let companies more effectively target, attract, and retain new customers; create and customize new products and services; and expand into new markets and geographical areas.

Information security and privacy applications could also use contextual data to function more effectively.

New Applications

In July, Radiant Logic released Context Browser, a Web-based application that lets users search contextually across structured information stored in different places.

Globys recently launched the Mobile Occasions contextual marketing service for cellular-phone providers. It combines billing and demographic information, as well as other data, to target advertisements to customers.

Ryerson University's student-based Digital Media Zone and Appear Networks are testing an application that users with disabilities could download to an Android smart phone to help them navigate the Paris subway. The Mobile Transit Companion gathers contextual information about train schedules, users' destinations, and their special needs, and presents applicable travel instructions in a way that is appropriate for their disability. For example, a blind person would receive audio instructions.

Cisco is working on the Collaboration in Motion initiative. This project would integrate location, activity, behavior, network traffic patterns, and other types of information from the company’s routers, as well as other communications and networking products, to bring context-aware technology to mobile applications.

AeroScout has implemented Cisco's platform commercially in applications and handheld devices that gather contextual information about a patient and hospital resources, and enable healthcare workers to quickly find the type of equipment and supplies needed.

AeroScout uses the same technology in products for the manufacturing, logistics, and transportation industries.

A key element in this implementation is the ability to leverage information from multiple sources, explained Steffan Haithcox, AeroScout Senior Director of Marketing. For example, the system gathers sensor data from patients via Wi-Fi and tracks equipment via GPS or RFID technology.

Obstacles

Context-aware technology can add cost and complexity to applications.

One problem the approach faces is that many organizations acquire context-related data from different sources, many of which use different data formats. This creates potential data-access and -integration problems

Moreover, the ability to aggregate large amounts of data could make it easier to uncover private information about people, said Han.

Some advanced context-aware services require considerable time and computational power to process large amounts of data, said PARC's Begole.

According to Carnegie Mellon's Dey, proponents must better prove the technology's value. "While I think we’ve made considerable progress in building more compelling applications, I don't think we've done a good job explaining why adding context to an application is a valuable asset." And if context doesn’t noticeably improve users' experience with devices or applications, they're likely to simply disable the capability, he added.

In the long run, context — with its promise of intelligently improving the way users work with devices and applications — could be just as important as Internet search technology, said Gartner's Clark.

Context could become a source of differentiation for software and handset vendors, mobile network operators, and communications vendors.

However, said Begole, a privacy-related debate will occur over the type of information that context-aware applications should be able to access. There is a risk of backlash if consumers don't feel protected, he said. "People are not sure if the benefit of exposing that much personal information outweighs the risk," he explained.

Nonetheless, Hossein Rahnama, research director of Ryerson University’s Ubiquitous and Pervasive Computing Lab and Appear Research Labs' director of innovation, predicted good things for context-aware computing.

The technology will get easier as the tools and platform mature, he explained. As this occurs, he said, software vendors won’t have to develop all tools and applications components on their own.

For this and other reasons, he concluded, "The future is going to be context aware."

George Lawton is a freelance technology writer based in Monte Rio, California. Contact him at glawton@glawton.com.

For more on context-aware computing, see Computing Now's August 2010 theme.