Electronic Design

Motorola Apprentice Contest Fuels Visions Of "Seamless Mobility"

While it may not have gained the high profile of Donald Trump's or Martha Stewart's The Apprentice contests, Motorola's Motofwrd competition offers the electronics world's equivalent.

Its grand prize is an internship with Motorola CTO Padmasree Warrior, plus a $10,000 cash scholarship, a Bluetooth-enhanced BMW, and a $1500 stash of Motorola goodies. The debut contest drew more than 500 entrants from 225 universities. Contestants shared their visions, via essay or multimedia presentation, for the future of "seamless mobility." A panel of futurists, including sci-fi authors Cory Doctorow and Catherine Asaro, selected the winners.

Four finalists were invited to a January press event in New York City. The judges awarded the top prize to John Finan of Duke University for his short story envisioning the "Mood Phone." Finan's tale describes a phone that uses adaptive algorithms to interpret mood and then flash color-coded LEDs to help Asperger Syndrome patients interpret conversational clues.

At Duke, Finan studied cognitive neuroscience and the aspects of Asperger Syndrome. People with this disease are unable to pick up the "mood clues" conveyed by subverbal vocal patterns— the lilt of a joke, the hardened tones of anger, or the drawl of distraction. In his story, the Mood Phone goes on to become a fad, popular with teenagers and the tech elite as a sort of "mood alert" early warning system.

Finan's concept takes voice recognition to the next frontier in terms of interaction between people and computers—machines that can understand and interpret emotion. With two science-fiction authors among the contest's judges, it's not surprising the panel was drawn to an essay that depicts this sci-fi theme of technology decoding emotion.

While other finalists presented some great application visions, many were only a step ahead of the realities in the lab today. (Technology is quickly catching up to many of our sci-fi fantasies!) The students generally defined "seamless mobility" via portable/ wearable devices that offer personalized calendars with customized news and entertainment, with machine-to-machine communications pulling in GPS, weather, sensor, and Internet data. Mobile services react fluidly, often anticipating the need for personal schedule changes and offering situational help, messaging, and services. A recurring theme is communication among multiple devices, i.e., a smart alarm clock that kickstarts the day with reminders about important agenda items culled from PDAs or smart phones.

MOTO VISION
I had a chance to sit down with Warrior and discuss the internship as well as her own vision for seamless mobility. She says that Finan's internship will let him rotate through six different Motorola research labs: physical science for embedded work; physical realization for displays, telepresence, and Avatars; networks; wireless access; applications for contacts and service; and human interaction, like speech to text and voice response.

As for the future, Warrior sees Near Field Communications and the resulting e-commerce as an important trend. In fact, the first phones with the MotoWallet should debut this year. She also points to the integration of sensors communicating with the phone, offering personal health and fitness functions.

Technically speaking, says Warrior, Motorola is focusing on power management and micro-miniaturization, moving toward wearable computing without compromising sound and performance. She notes that in addition to advances in battery management, a lot of work is going into smarter software— writing code that consumes less power and designing segmented applications that can power-down certain functions quickly when they aren't required.

"The phone should feel like a fashion accessory, without sacrificing quality," she says of the move to wearable computing. Wearable electronics use wireless technologies—think sensors in clothing for rescue personnel or the latest Bluetooth products like the company's Audex jacket, Miniblue in-ear headset, or O ROKR Bluetooth stereo sunglasses

Hats off to Motorola for its forward thinking, not only in creating products that have revolutionized our world, but for creating the Motofwrd competition. Motofwrd is getting more college students thinking about engineering and product design—and about their ability to help shape the future of seamless mobility. For more about the contest, go to www.electronicdesign.com and see Drill Deeper 11963.

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