Instant switching keeps calls secret

02/04/04

SOMEONE walks into your office as you are in the middle of a confidential phone call, and you don't want them to overhear it. Your only option is to cut the call short, and either phone back later or switch to more discreet email or instant messaging. Now IBM engineers are developing a system that makes the switch seamlessly, without breaking the flow of your discussion.

It will enable a voice call to be switched to silent instant messaging when you get to your desk, for example. At present, both callers must switch, but the developers say as speech-to-text and text-to-speech technologies improve, this may not be necessary: one could use text while the other stays on the phone.

The new system, which IBM calls Mercury, will track where you are- at work, at home, in the street- and plug you into the medium you prefer in that location, whether it be cellphone, email, instant messaging, pager or landline phone. Mercury can also be made "context aware", by detecting whether a laptop is running a presentation, for example. You could then set it to refrain from sending a message that would interrupt a business presentation, but allow it through if a game is being played.

Anand Ranganathan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Hui Lei of IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, developed Mercury as a follow-up to the Intelligent Notification System (INS) that Hui developed in 2002 and which IBM has commercialised. INS gleans information about someone's activity by monitoring which software is running and the events in their electronic calendar. It also obtains location information from GPS receivers. After combining these factors, it decides whether to deliver any incoming messages as an email, a pager message or a voicemail.

Mercury combines INS's context-aware capabilities with the ability to control a range of communications devices. When you want to reach another user, Mercury checks their location and activity, and decides how best to contact them. No longer will there be any need to leave multiple messages on email, voicemail and a pager. "You just think of the person you are trying to reach and Mercury does the rest," says Ranganathan.

Mercury is still a lab project and is at least three years from realisation. And before it can become a commercial reality, phone companies, equipment providers, internet providers and computer makers will have to agree on common protocols.

Despite Mercury's Big Brother overtones, communications experts are convinced that this kind of smart system will soon be in demand. "As the number of gadgets we are expected to operate increases, the bottleneck will become human attention," says Anupam Joshi, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "This kind of technology will relieve that."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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