ATandT Wants People to Know Theres More to the Company Than Just Making Calls

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2012-04-20

ATandT Innovations Include BYOD Apps, Watson Speech Recognition

AT&T Labs is offering a look at the future, showing off nearly-there technologies, from a more intuitive GPS system to more helpful televisions to better speech-recognition technology for travelers and drivers.

AT&T is quickly rolling out Long-Term Evolution (LTE) coverage alongside its Evolved High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) technology€”what it likes to call its other 4G network. However, the carrier wants people to know that there€™s more to the company than just making phone calls.

€œWhen you build a powerful network, people will want to do more with it than just make phone calls,€ Krish Prabhu, president and CTO of AT&T Labs, said at an April 19 "Living the Networked Life" event, where AT&T had gathered researchers, engineers and other smart folks to show off the big ideas they€™ve been working on to take advantage of AT&T€™s network and the increasingly capable devices it powers.

Using props that ranged from a Porsche 911 to a hotel doorknob, these creators showed off everything from application platform interfaces (APIs) that developers can grab and integrate into apps, to technologies that various industries might want to adopt and make their own. While all the researchers were mum about time frames, Prabhu said all the projects are in the €œfairly late stages of development€ and €œare here because they have great prospects.€

These €œart-of-the-possible€ technologies, as AT&T calls them, included:

A New Kind of Steering Wheel

In-car navigation is great, but instructions like €œturn left in 200 feet€ aren€™t super-clear when one€™s driving, and then there€™s the aspect of taking one€™s eyes off the road to consult the little on-dash display. Prompted by AT&T€™s €œIt Can Wait€ campaign, encouraging drivers to not text while driving, AT&T Labs Researcher Kevin Li started thinking more about driver safety and, with help from a few collaborators, came up with a haptics-enhanced steering wheel.

The wheel is fitted with 20 actuators, which are about the size of a screw head and spaced about 2 inches apart around the wheel, so that no matter where a driver€™s hand or hands are, they€™ll feel several of them. When the instruction comes to turn, the actuators work together to vibrate either clockwise or counter-clockwise, suggesting a right or left turn. The suggestion of the turn is intuitively understood, and the vibrations speed up as the driver nears the turn, making them more certain of the direction without taking their eyes off the wheel.

Shadow Interactions with Mobile Phone Projectors

Another project from Li, and an AT&T Labs summer intern, Lisa Cowan, looks to make better use of pico projectors in mobile photos. While the projectors are a neat tool, letting users project what€™s on their screens so the content is viewable to several people, Cowan and Li decided to address the matter of only the person holding the phone being able to manipulate the content. They came up with what they call ShadowPuppets, a system that lets users and the people around them manipulate the content on the screen€”scroll through photos, zoom in or out on a map or click on links€”using the shadow of their fingers on the projection. It could be used in a boardroom, with multiple people manipulating the screen during a presentation, or among friends, standing around trying to figure out where to eat, for example.

A New Way to Watch TV

A software called Content Augmenting Media (CAM) wants to change the way people watch television. Instead of channel surfing, looking for something they like, CAM delivers to a view the content they like. Using a mobile device or tablet€”and potentially through speech-to-text capabilities€”users input essentially tags, or keywords. These can be names of people, popular topics or locations, and they can be saved and turned on or off, so they don€™t need to be input again. When a program that matches any of the selected keywords is found, a window at the bottom of the screen can pop up to tell the user what it€™s found. Potentially, CAM could also offer program suggestions, based on what it knows the user is interested in.

ATandT Wants People to Know Theres More to the Company Than Just Making Calls

A New Way to €œToggle€ Between Home and Work Content on Mobile Devices

Designed for Android-running smartphones and tablets, Toggle is a device-management app that creates a wall between corporate data and a user€™s private data on a user-owned device. Ideal for bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs, there are no servers to install and it€™s completely scalable. A cloud-based Web portal gives service administrators a way to control the corporate environment, but they have zero access to the other side of the wall where the user€™s data€”games, photos, email, etc.€”live.

On the Toggle side of the wall are features like Toggle contacts, Toggle messenger, Toggle calendar and even a way to set up working hours, so users don€™t receive business alerts during personal time. There€™s a recurring monthly fee of $5 per user, and a one-time fee of either $350 or $750, depending on whether one chooses a Lite or Basic service package. The researchers also discovered that Toggle works on the Amazon Kindle platform, making it possible to even receive email on a Kindle.

Smartphones as Hotel Door Keys

An application using near-field communication (NFC) with an over-the-air (OTA) component could let a traveler check into a hotel using her smartphone. Instead of a desk clerk programming a code into a plastic key, the door code could be automatically sent to the phone. A traveler could then walk directly to their room and tap her NFC-enabled phone on the door€™s handle to unlock it.

Other capabilities for the technology, according its creator, Adam Lotia, with AT&T€™s Foundry, are using the phone as a ticket for public transportation or to get into a concert or sporting events, or to replace a swipeable employee ID badge. (In all fairness, Nokia, ahead of its time, showed off how phones could be used in place of swipeable badges as late as 2005.)

Instant Language Translation

Reseachers at AT&T Labs have developed an app called Spectra that they hope will make traveling or just communicating between languages simpler. Combining Translator, AT&T€™s cloud-based translation service, with automatic speech recognition (ASR) text-to-speech and AT&T€™s Watson speech-recognition technology, Spectra takes the spoken language, translates it into a chosen language and responds to the original speaker in his language.

Two researchers€”one speaking English with a heavy Indian accent and the other speaking Spanish€”used tablets to show off the technology, the first pretending to call for a cab. When the phone on his tablet rang, the first speaker requested the cab, and his words were typed on the screen, instant messaging (IM) style. The response came, typed on the screen in English, with the speaker€™s original response in Spanish typed below the English translation.

Watson is also being used by QNX Systems€”the company Research In Motion purchased several years back€”which works intensively with the automotive industry. With Watson€™s highly tuned voice-recognition system, a user can ask the car for directions to the nearest Starbucks, control in-car, rear-seat devices (where maybe kids are watching a movie), and when quickly connected to a smartphone or tablet, place calls and read aloud text messages or emails to the driver, as well as respond to these.

Or, most of the time. They are, again, in the late stages of development€”close, but not quite there.

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