How to Build a Better Rice Cooker “The Future of Smart Appliances, Wireless Networking and Presence and Instant Messaging Technologies”
Imagine, if you will, that you really like rice. No, scratch that. Imagine that you love it, so much so that you’ve invested in a rice cooker and you make it every day for lunch. Of course for the typical American, this probably seems very strange. After all, if, at some point before being sliced and bar-b-qued beyond recognition, it hadn’t been grazing in a pasture, why bother eating it? But then this is my story and I happen to like rice, and of course this is a story of how to build a better rice cooker, not a better bar-bque grill, although as we shall see, perhaps a better grill isn’t out of the question. Now imagine that it’s sometime in the future, but not too far in the future—maybe only ten years hence. And imagine that you have a better rice cooker, one that does almost everything for you; it measures the rice and the water, it places each into the cook pot and, at some programmed time, cooks for you a fragrant pot of rice so that all you have to do, after showering and dressing in the morning, is remove the rice pot, stick a lid on it, and put it in your lunch bag to take to work. And finally imagine that you’ve arrived at work and, after putting your rice in the company fridge where it awaits your lunchtime indulgence, you log into your computer and sign into your instant messaging software. Moments later you receive a message, but not from Sally, the girl you’ve been dating and who, oddly, doesn’t seem to share your fondness for the grain of the gods, nor from your mother, who doesn’t understand and probably doesn’t even care what an email message is let alone an instant message. No, you receive a message from your rice cooker telling you that it’s almost out of rice and that it needs you to fill it when you get home. Sound strange? Probably. Far fetched? Not at all. Once the engineering of the physical device itself has been figured out, that is to say, once it knows how to measure so many cups of rice from a large hopper, place the rice into the pot with some amount of water, and then turn itself on, all that’s required to take it to the next step is for the engineers to slap together some of today’s technologies and voila! You have a truly smart appliance, a better rice cooker, in other words. With technologies such as tiny, embeddable wireless networking devices and presence and instant messaging, a smart rice cooker isn’t out of the question. But then, would anyone actually want one of these? Perhaps not now, not while the Food Network is airing a plethora of cooking shows, and certainly not while more people are preferring to pick up the chef’s knife and break out the good old Kitchen-Aid in favor of palming
the remote and surfing through the hundreds of mind-numbing channels on cable television. But in our future, a future where life is more hurried than it is today (if you can imagine that), where even the luxury of brushing one’s teeth in peace might some day be replaced with a yearly application of some synthetic goop that prevents all sorts of tooth and gum decay or when the simple, pleasurable act of cooking one’s own rice becomes a distant memory, we won’t be able to afford the extra few minutes in the bathroom or in the kitchen, rather we will no doubt be spending the extra time saved in pursuit of getting a head start on the morning’s traffic as we head off to work and our typical fourteen hour day. While the dream of a “Mr. Rice” in every home may only rest in my sordid imagination, and while something like this may never come to pass, the technology for creating this kind of smart appliance has already been invented, and it’s merely a matter of time before some savvy entrepreneur (don’t look at me, I just write this stuff.) makes the mental connection between rice and wireless communications. Hey, anything is possible. Technologies such as Bluetooth make (or will make) it possible to transmit digital data from one device to another without being physically connected (wireless networking, in other words), and presence and instant messaging technologies allow our rice cooker to use the wireless technologies to discover when and how we’re available and to let us know via a message that it is sorely in need of being refilled—after all, what good is an appliance if it doesn’t serve you well? And what better than an appliance that tells you how it feels (within reason, of course)? Before we can consider an appliance such as our futuristic “Mr. Rice,” we need to first consider the home network. Why the home network? Simple. Wireless networking technologies such as Bluetooth are used locally within a networked environment. And of course the house of our future will be such that it is networked. Even today we have the beginnings of home networks to the outside, from DSL to Cable Modems, both which provide Ethernet interfaces to your computer and hence make them part of a larger network, the Internet. But now imagine a house full of smart devices each connected to a network in your home that itself is connected to the Internet, and each of these devices is a node of your home network. Given this scenario, you could easily and remotely monitor your smart devices from anywhere you have access to a web browser and the Internet. Say, for example, that on your lunch break you decide, after hearing from your friends about a movie or a television special that will be airing but at a time you know you’ll still be at work slaving away for Big Brother, you want to record it on your digital recorder. Going home is out of the question, of course, and perhaps you live alone, save for a pair of goldfish and a parakeet. No problem. All you need to do in our vision of the future is connect to your home network from work using your favorite browser, link to your digital
movie recorder and set the time when and the channel on which you wish it to begin recording. Wireless communications make it all possible and negate the unnecessary burden of having to have Ethernet jacks all over the house and messy cables strung from each device—a very attractive alternative, indeed! But what about devices that need to get a message to you, devices such as a security system that sends you a message telling you that your house is being burgled, or a smart answering machine (perhaps integral to your PC) that forwards voice messages directly to your instant messaging software, or, as our story began, the depressed little rice cooker that needs to tell you that it’s out of rice? You’ve all probably heard of presence and instant messaging…well, instant messaging, at least. How many of you have ever used instant messaging applications such as AOL’s Instant Messenger, or Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, or even Yahoo’s instant messaging application? These small, lightweight applications make it easy and fun (for most of us) to chat with our friends online, especially while at work and bored out of our minds. But what of presence? The simplest example is built right into your favorite instant messaging software. When you look at the main window of any instant messaging application to find out who of your friends is online, you’re experiencing presence. That is, the application is telling you who of your chat buddies is present and available for a chat. Of course this sort of presence is limited to the instant messaging application that you and your friend are both using. In other words, both of you need to be using AOL’s instant messenger, for example, for accurate presence information to be shared between the two of you. You could have a friend who, for various reasons, chooses a competing instant messaging application and you would never know that he was at his desk unless you called him directly by phone or asked him via email. This sort of presence also limits you to knowing how your friends are available. That is, using the various instant messaging offerings, you only know that a friend of yours is or is not available to chat via the particular instant messaging software that you chose to use. You have no idea, however, that he may, instead or in tandem, be available also on his cell phone or home phone, or that he’s only accepting emails, or perhaps he’s connected to the Internet via his PDA. This sort of “omni-presence” is not only useful, but also necessary in our future vision, as well as today what with the myriad digital communications devices essentially at your fingertips. If it’s not already, it will soon be common to see most professionals out there with more than one of these devices: a laptop, PDA, cell-phone, pager, etc. Given a system that publishes and propagates your “omni-presence,” any way that you can be reached by one or more of these devices can easily be published in such a way that for anyone who wishes to know, and of course for anyone you allow to know, can know and can then get in touch with you in whichever way is most convenient. This omni-presence technology is already here. Personity, Inc., of Pittsburgh, PA, has, over the last several years, contributed to the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force)
an internet draft1 document for an Internet protocol called PRIM (Presence and Instant Messaging Protocol) that satisfies the requirements detailed in RFC2 2779 (the Instant Messaging/Presence Protocol, or IMPP) and which also conforms to another internet draft called CPIM (Common Profile for Instant Messaging). The engineers at Personity, Inc., have also managed in that time to create a mature and robust Presence and Instant Messaging system based on these proposed standards. Their technology is ubiquitous in that it’s available on the most common digital communications devices (Palm Pilots, WAP-enabled cell phones and of course the everyday Windows-based personal computer), and by using one of these devices and connecting to the internet, your presence on that device is published and those who you allow access to this information can see at a glance from whichever device they’re using that you are available, whether via your favorite instant messaging software, your cell phone or even your email. So now that embeddable wireless technology is just around the corner and presence and instant messaging technologies are here already, how exactly do we use these to build a better rice cooker? Currently, instant messaging applications, even Personity, Inc.’s, assume that one person is sending a message, whether it be text or a picture or perhaps even a sound clip, to another person and that the other person, in kind, might, if she’s not ignoring you, respond to your message. But what’s to keep a presence and instant messaging-enabled device from sending you a message? And what’s to keep you from responding, or perhaps even initiating the conversation between you and it? True, it probably wouldn’t be as enlightening as discussing epistemology, or as fun as sharing your favorite jokes or making plans to see a movie after work. But this type of communication could certainly come in handy when you want to set your digital movie recorder, or turn on various lights in your house before you head home, or even tell your rice cooker that you’re having a party after work and that you want it to make several extra cups of rice if it can; for, as you suspect, all your friends, save for your girlfriend, love rice, don’t they? In a typical presence and instant messaging system you have the notion of a subscriber, that is, someone who has subscribed to your presence information and who receives updates on how you can be reached. All your friends that are listed in your favorite instant messaging software are subscribers, and chances are you are a subscriber to them. In the morning when you sign onto your computer and into your instant messaging software, each friend who is online gets a notification that you are now online and available for a chat. When you sit idle for some time (that is, when you are not tapping at the keys or moving your mouse), a notification is sent to those who are observing your presence that you are idle, which might indicate that you’re away from your computer or perhaps nodding off at your desk, in which case as your forehead slams into your keyboard, your friends will be notified that you are now back at your desk, or at the very least now awake. An Internet draft document is a document that is submitted to a standards body, in this case the IETF, for peer review so that it may be considered for publication as an actual standard. 2 An RFC is a Request For Comment, and is usually a document that describes a standard for how some Internet technology works, such as the protocol for sending email over the internet or, in this case, the protocols for publishing and propagating presence information and initiating an instant messaging conversation. 1
A smart appliance or device, like one of your friends, could also subscribe to your presence information and know when and how you’re available should it need to send you a message—of course this only makes sense if it is a device that can send you a message. Likewise you could subscribe to it so that, should you wish to tell it to do something (record a movie, make rice, etc.), you just need to initiate a conversation and give it your instructions. Today when two people speak to one another we use our natural language that has evolved over many millennia, and of course as humans we have the brain capacity to understand the almost infinite combinations of the words that make up our language and the conversations that ensue between us. A computer, on the other hand, while it can certainly crunch numbers like there’s no tomorrow or transmit gigabytes of data in a fraction of a second or help create computer animations for the latest sci-fi thriller, are as dumb as grapes when it comes to understanding our natural language. Even expert systems, some of which employ a natural language interface, are limited to a certain type of language, be it medical, engineering or some other discipline, and often they’re limited to a small subset of language within a particular discipline. Imagine a conversation today between you and your rice cooker using a current instant messaging application: Mr. Rice: I am out of rice and cannot fulfill my destiny. You: I’m sorry to hear that. Mr. Rice: I don’t understand your request. You: I mean, I really am sorry. I will fill you when I get home. Mr. Rice: I don’t understand your request. You: Hey, how’s my parakeet? Mr. Rice: Please restate the question. Certainly this isn’t enlightening nor is it entertaining, but of course it does no harm, either. Now let us imagine instant messaging in our vision of the future, instant messaging that goes beyond the simple chat interface and becomes smarter, more useful and makes it easy for man and machine to communicate their messages to one another. A future instant messaging application would allow a subscriber who wishes to initiate a conversation the ability to not only send the message but also send you the interface by which you and he or it can communicate. In the case of a chat session between two people, the interface could remain essentially the same; a window with a text box and a place to type your message. But a smart appliance, on the other hand, could send to your instant messaging applications instructions for building a specific kind of interface, a dialog, in user interface parlance, that allows you to converse with the appliance in a specific kind of way. When our Mr. Rice notifies us that it is in need of more rice before it can fulfill its obligation to you, an instant messaging window would appear telling you this and a
simple button would be presented that allowed you to acknowledge that you received the message so that it wouldn’t keep trying to get a hold of you by sending you instant messages all day or ringing your cell phone or filling your inbox with mail. This is a simple case of an appliance initiating a chat and receiving your simple response. Now, what if you wanted to initiate a conversation with it to tell it that you need extra rice for the party after work? This is similar to clicking the user name of one of your friends in your instant messaging application. Instead you just click the name of your Mr. Rice, which may just be Mr. Rice, and a different sort of chat interface appears, one that shows you such information as the time of your next scheduled batch of rice, the amount scheduled to be made and perhaps the amount of rice left in its repository. Of course various interface controls let you reschedule the time, or change the amount of rice to make or adjust the amount of water to use when making the rice or even to shut itself down in the case where you might, one day, discover that you have to fly out of town that evening for an emergency meeting of the minds. But of course with today’s modern presence and instant messaging technology, the one designed and implemented by Personity, Inc., for example, the device isn’t just limited to sending you a message to your PC nor is it limited to receiving messages from you via a PC. It can know how to chat with you in whatever way you’re connected to the Internet, whether it be via your WAP-enabled phone, your Palm Pilot, or maybe even a pager. It could even send you a voice mail message generated by an advanced text-tospeech processor or something as simple as an email message. With everyone being connected in multiple ways to the Internet and with the need to effectively and quickly communicate with each other at a distance, the future potential of wireless networking and presence and instant messaging technologies is vast and exciting. And with more smart devices and appliances being developed all the time, these specific technologies can certainly play a big role in how we communicate our needs to them, and they to us. Oh, but what of our bar-b-que grill? What information could it possibly have to communicate to us? Well, have you ever decided to have a backyard party with hotdogs and hamburgers and whatever else only to discover, as your hungry, impatient guest are arriving, that you’d forgotten to refill your propane tank? Need I say more?