The View from Intel Research Berkeley

Last week I went to an open house at Intel Research Berkeley, a research center that occupies the penthouse of the 14–story building that also houses the research facility I run. The views of the Bay Area from up there are probably the best one can see from the East Bay, appropriate for the visionary and lofty goals of the projects that Intel showcased.

The mission statement of the research center is

Drive off-roadmap, high-impact exploratory research vital to Intel

a sentiment that should easily translate to research at most companies. Interestingly, the technology buzztheme Simplicity has made its way into the Intel Research vision:

Essential Computing: simplifying and enriching all aspects of work and daily life

The research center was created in a 2001 Intel initiative to reach out to University talent, opening similar centers near Carnegie Mellon University and University of Washington (Intel Research Berkeley is 1 block from the UC Berkeley campus). Surprisingly, according to Henry Chesbrough in his book Open Innovation, Intel didn’t have much of an internal research effort until 1989, with only external research supporting them until then.

Okay, back to Intel’s open house.

The diversity of the research presented was impressive. There were posters and demos for over 50 projects, categorized into the following broad fields:

  • Security/Networking/Distributed Systems
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Technology for Emerging Regions
  • Programming Languages

Each project was also assigned a descriptor for marketing appeal:

  • Richly Communicative
  • Concealing Complexity
  • Personal Awareness
  • Emergence Engineering
  • Potpourri
  • Physicality

The Security/Networking/Distributed Systems research included projects on power management for routers, fingerprint pattern recognition, and virtual machines for long-term data storage and retrieval. The details in most of these were fairly incomprehensible to me given my lack of expertise in these areas.

Of greater interest (and comprehension) to me were the Human-Computer Interaction projects.

One was titled Data Souvenirs: book-like objects that sat on your table or bookshelf and provided electronic information on the spine and inside the book, such as an lcd screen indicating when you have received e-mail from specific addresses, eliminating the need to constantly check your e-mail at home over the weekend/evening. One intriguing application of this project was called something like Real-Time Journey in which the book represents the long-term progress of an historical event in real time. For example, the book might track the voyage of Lewis&Clark, with the spine displaying their progress over the same time-scale as the actual trip (e.g., distance traveled or states reached). Inside the book would be maps and information on their voyage. As the representation of the virtual trip reaches a landmark (e.g., Mississippi reached), you could open the book and read about that point on their voyage. The possibilities for other creative uses are interesting, although the most difficult part of this project is probably the identification of the key value proposition to consumers.

There were several interesting cellphone projects, focusing on either an application or a combination of application and system architecture. One project addressed problems of application incompatibility between cellphones by designing applications that did not run on the phone itself. They demonstrated an application where people could make real-time adjustments to a remote display with their cellphone, the demo’ed application being a conference meeting where people are adjusting their responses in reply to questions from the speaker. As they made adjustments to their response with their cellphone, they could see those changes in real-time on the remote display being projected.

Another cellphone application was place-based ringtones, where the ring that your phone makes will depend on who is nearby and what signatures they have on their phone. In a separate cellphone alert project, a visual metaphor was demonstrated that would accompany ringtones: instead of simply flashing the name and phone number of the person calling, a landscape image on the phone display would change to indicate if the call was from someone you know, a specific person, etc. For example, a park scene might suddenly show birds flying in the distance of the call is long distance, or a swan floating on a lake if it was a friend. This would personalize the information and encode the data in metaphor that only you could understand.

One interesting project was a combination of human behavior research with statistical analysis for the optimization of computer power management. Several gigabytes of data were obtained from thousands of hours of pc usage to determine when is the best time to power down such computer resources as a computer screen or hard disk. The goal was to maximize battery life while minimizing human annoyance. The challenge was how to measure this passively, without constantly asking people what they like and don’t like. The researcher(s) ended up interpreting user annoyance by identifying associated behavior: if the user immediately shakes the mouse or mashes on the keyboard immediately after the screen powers off, that’s a sign that the person did not want the screen to power down at that time. Data on what the user had been doing and what states the computer was in before power-down was gathered to understand how to predict when the user does and does not want a power-down. A massive hidden Markov model was created from the 50–dimensional data set to predict human behavior such that the power management can better determine when to power components down, rather than rely on simple rules like “turn off the screen after 5 minutes of inactivity.”

There were several projects that focused on providing technology in emerging regions, such as West Africa and India. Applications ranged from providing WiMax connectivity and telemedicine in rural areas (see Cnet video), and literacy programs developed for cellphones. Several projects also addressed green issues.

I was impressed with the variety of projects at this one small facility. How they get that work done with those spectacular floor-to-ceiling views, I have no idea.

JC Bacharach

I haven’t seen many commercials since getting my Series 1 Tivo many years ago, but for some reason I stopped during a recent commercial break to watch the commercial embedded below. I recall some research showing that well known musical pieces can be recognized within one second, and perhaps that’s why I stopped on this commercial: I heard the first second of the music.

The commercial is astonishing in that it is for…wait for it…JC Penny. Not a brand known for its hip/cool image or fashion. This commercial, and a series of other ones, presents a striking new image and speaks to the power of creativity in marketing and its ability to change the perception of a low-quality product/merchant.

For some reason, this campaign resonates with me. Maybe because of the focus in this commercial on classic movies, which definitely has a place in my life, but for sure because of the use of Burt Bacharach music, one of the two greatest songwriters of the latter half of the 20th century (any guesses on who the other is?).

Oh, and a different JC Penny commercial features this other sprightly song as well:

http://www.myspace.com/foreverthursdaymusic

Edit May 3, 2007:
For those of you looking for information on the song used in the new JC Penny commercial that premiered tonight during Grey’s Anatomy, the song Only You is performed by Joshua Radin and is on his new album. You can hear a clip on his official website.

Ream Oeuvred Your Care Eons

I’ve been sitting in the Phoenix airport for almost two hours now listening to their synthesized-voice announcements over and over again and I am thoroughly sick of this speech synthesis technology. The intonation is wrong on much of what it says, similar to what one would expect from someone reading English text when they are not too familiar with the language.

I keep expecting one of the announcements to begin with, “Hello, my name a Borat,” and end with, “Iaye liiike.” The phrase “removed your carry-ons,” in a message that repeats every ten minutes, has the prosody of a five-year old rapping to polka music.

The apparent lack of interest in using a system that sounds more human-like is as disturbing as the speech itself. I suppose that I am more sensitive to such things than other people given my interests in speech&hearing, but I wonder if Bobby Johnston noticed the announcement asking “Bob Eee Johns Ton” to meet his party at baggage claim.

I am reminded of American Express’s recent change of their automated phone system in using a voice that sounds like a young Valley Girl. Is this really what AmEx customers want to hear when they call about a financial inquiry? I appreciate that automatic speech (synthesis) systems provide efficiency and cost-savings, but they do so at the additional potential cost of annoyed listeners.

(For those of you still scratching your heads on the meaning of this post’s title, read it out loud. Then compare what you just said with "removed your carry-ons"  🙂

Data Sharing Article in Nature

The weekly science journal Nature just published an article on online data sharing that quotes me. My comments are from an e-mail exchange that I had with their Senior Reporter Declan Butler about the potential of new online data sharing sites such as Swivel and IBM’s Many Eyes. I’ve posted about Many Eyes before.

DataAccording to Declan’s e-mail to me, some scientists are already using these new tools to share sequence and microarray data. The potential value from scientists openly sharing their data is huge, possibly akin to the value provided by open-source software development. More people exploring data is always a good thing, and someone could discover meaningful information in data that the original owner/researcher missed. Or one’s interests might be different than that of the original owner/researcher and thus one could analyze the data in a different way that is meaningful to questions not investigated by the original researcher. In a scientific publication, the author can’t produce every possible permutation of the data that the readers might want, so letting the “reader” explore the data themselves through online accessibility has value. As Edward Tufte says in his book Visual Explanations,

When assessing evidence, it is helpful to see a full data matrix, all observations for all variables, those private numbers from which the public displays are constructed. No telling what will turn up.

(Thanks to Squaring the Globe blog for providing this quote.)

Anyone who has tried to obtain the raw data behind published research, however, knows that it can be difficult to get for many reasons: researchers have difficulty retrieving the data from media that is no longer used, researchers not having the time to search for and provide the data in an understandable format, researchers simply not wanting to lose any perceived advantage in pursuing future funding.

I’ve thought that a way around this is for NIH (or whatever the funding organization is) to require that all data from NIH-funded research be submitted to the NIH and be made publicly available. There are many difficulties with this proposal, of course, not the least of which is ensuring that others know how to read and interpret the data. The potential for misinterpretation would be huge. One possible solution to this would be to make available only data associated with a publication that details the methods and procedures of the data collection. This could become a policy that the publishing journal mandates rather than the funding organization.

I’ve been told that a proposal was made within the NIH to do just this several years ago for a discipline that is data-heavy, but the scientists in that field shot down the idea for several reasons, one of which was that they didn’t want any errors in their own data analysis discovered. Whatever the reasons, published figures and tables have been the primary form of information transmission of data for hundreds of years. With today’s electronic tools, there is no reason to limit our data sharing ability to techniques developed centuries ago.