Visit to AT&T Laboratories Cambridge

Yesterday, Peter Scott presented a talk on KMi Stadium research to some of the cool engineers at the AT&T Laboratories in Cambridge. I was invited up by Quentin Stafford-Fraser to give them some of the context of our work and look around their very fine communications engineering research lab (previously the Olivetti Research Laboratory).

The thing I was most keen to see whilst there was the Broadband Phone System – a neat spin on a simple technology. The phone itself is simply a thin client with an always-on network connection that can run arbitary apps (cos they are on the server) to its nice wee lcd. Aint many of these in the world, and (basically) they are all in this lab! The prototype has a strong-arm running a version of their own VNC on linux. VNC is Virtual Network Computing which provides remote cross-platform access to PC or Unix desktops using a simple protocol to send graphical change data to a viewer program. So, much like your favourite remote control prog it detects clicks and key-press interactions on the local viewer and sends that to the remote system. The nice thing about VNC is that it is open source – so there are versions for most platforms even WinCE and Palm handhelds (Imagine running your mac desktop via your wireless handheld?!?) Anyway, back to the phone … you click a button on the lcd and the click is sent to the server which sends back the button-down graphic and executes the action (zero latency being pretty damned important for this). But, of course, it also means that your phone can run a browser or any other sensible comms related app. So, when you call to have someone let you into their car park they checkout the car-park cam though the phone before directing you to an appropriate space.

Spin over to the other side of the reality spectrum for the Ultrasonic Location System, or Active Bat, which allows finer-grained 3D location. Embed sonic detectors every 1.2 metres in a grid in the ceiling (and calibrate them into a model of the building) and then you can position the badge / bat to within a couple of centimetres of space. Put one on and the system knows where you are – doors will unlock if you are entitled to walk through them, place something on the scanner bed and the scan will be dropped on you computer desktop (cos it must be you who pressed the scan button right?). One fantastic application enabled by this is what they call sentient computing – the coolest feature of which is “interface everywhere”. So, for example you can use your bat badge as a mouse to click arbitary buttons anywhere, on the wall or indeed any region of space you define. Combine this with wireless immersive vr goggles and you could even post vitual notes onto virtual notice board on any physical wall that respond to specific individuals (whoa!).

One simple but powerful system they are using is AT&TV. They have a rig which auto captures and encodes (mpeg-1) about a weeks worth, at at time, of broadcast TV. They use closed-caption transcript boxes to auto add a text track (where available), and some video segmentation algorithms to chop up scenes and add helpful keyframes to the overviews. Infomedia eat your heart out. Sadly the only application they seem have for this at the mo. is for an always-on, instant access, transcript searchable VCR – but how cool is that!

Overall, I found some very impressive pieces of work in a lab that complements our own work rather remarkably. AND I have only mentioned a couple of the cool things they are doing here, check it out yourself. Hey, they even have three commercial spinoffs, spooky or what!


Knowledge Media Institute
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1908 653800

Fax: +44 (0)1908 653169

Email: KMi Support


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