Big Blue meets Inspector Gadget

Big Blue meets Inspector Gadget

There’s nothing special anymore about a digital bathroom scale. But this one has its own IP address and a Bluetooth connection to a cell phone.

And nearby is a similarly equipped pillbox. Forget your medicine, and it might just email you a reminder.

You won’t find these items at the cool online store, The Sharper Image, just yet. They and dozens of other futuristic gizmos are prototypes at IBM’s Corporate Design Center in New York.

That’s right — the same company that makes million-dollar mainframes and enterprise application software. Here in what IBM calls its Gadget Lab are devices that sit at the intersection of the marketplace and IBM’s vast patent portfolio. Most of the prototypes have been built in small quantities for specific customers.

IBM hopes these demo devices will turn into real products, albeit in most cases manufactured by another company. In addition to generating license fees, IBM hopes they will spawn demand for its big-iron infrastructure products.

Wherever there are networked bathroom scales and pillboxes, there must be a server and some database software in the background, IBM figures.

Several forces converged to prompt IBM to establish its Engineering Technology & Services (ET&S) division, which owns the Gadget Lab, in October 2002. There had been an explosion in the number of applications for IT embedded in consumer products, from cars to toys to medical devices, and there had been much innovation around e-commerce.

“We interviewed 76 companies at the end of the dotcom era, and there was a lot of interesting technology left on the table,” general manager of ET&S, Pat Toole, said.

Seeking a way to match those technological opportunities with its 20,000 active patents and 40,000 engineers, and propelled by a management mandate to become more of a services company, IBM got into the gadgets business. About 200 companies have paid it to develop prototypes so far. For the first time, IBM is giving customers access to its core technologies, not just to finished products.

IBM worked with the Mayo Clinic to design a small magnetic resonance imaging coil that can be used to examine body parts in extreme detail. An injured arm, for example, is inserted into the coil and then the coil and arm are inserted into the tube of an MRI machine.

The resulting images recorded by the coil were more detailed than those that could be obtained any other way, Mayo’s technology commercialisation manager, Bruce Kline, said.

Doctor in the House

Why turn to a computer company for a medical device?

“Mayo and IBM are trying to get together on many levels,” Kline said. “IBM’s win was they learned how to do a medical device. Mayo’s win was access to engineers that are good at productisation.”

IBM is working with four companies to develop devices for wireless medical data collection. Wearable blood pressure, heart rate and EKG monitors — plus the bathroom scale and pillbox — could send real-time medical data by mobile phone to a doctor, a clinic or a pharmaceutical company whose clinical trial of a new drug includes the user of those devices. The devices could work in concert so that a physician receiving, say, adverse blood pressure or heart rate data could see that the patient hadn’t taken his medication that day and respond accordingly.

A communications company in Europe wanted more flexibility in pricing cell phones, and it wanted to foster demand for services over its cellular network. In response, IBM designed a cell phone “hub” that contains the phone’s battery, its cellular radio and a Bluetooth device. The hub stays in a pocket or purse and communicates with application-specific cell phone modules — which IBM also designed — that contain input and output devices such as keypads, earphones, cameras or mini-keyboards.

This arrangement allows the cell phone owner to use the ultralight and cheap user-interface device as an ordinary cell phone. But it also lets the user employ any number of specialised mobile wireless gadgets.

For example, IBM worked with Nike to fit a foot-mounted pedometre with a Bluetooth connection to the cell hub. Now a jogger can automatically send time and distance data to his trainer — which might just be a Web application, not a person — and get back instructions or words of encouragement.

A stack of 27 bricks may be one of the most promising items in the Gadget Lab. Each brick in the prototype storage system contains a microprocessor, eight to 12 disk drives and communications hardware. Each brick can communicate with any other brick at 10Gbps, and the bricks can be stacked to create data storage cubes scalable to petabytes.

An array of these bricks in the lab — a cube that’s about 75cms on each side — could hold as much information as the Library of Congress. It had

10 times the storage density of anything ever made, IBM’s manager of strategic design, Robert Steinbugler, said.

In a few years, one storage administrator using smart bricks should be able to manage a petabyte of storage, about 100 times more than is typical today, according to IBM.

The technology is part of IBM’s autonomic computing initiative.

“The idea of autonomic is self-healing, or self-managing,” Steinbugler said.

Smart bricks perform security and recovery operations without human intervention. The system can reconfigure itself in response to and in anticipation of varying conditions and user needs. And when a disk drive fails, users can ignore it.

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