Pervasive computing moves to Cooltown

TORONTO — Hewlett-Packard Tuesday opened a showroom at its Canadian headquarters to demonstrate the possibilities of pervasive computing to its customers.

Called Cooltown, the “customer experience centre” sits behind a glass wall just across from the main reception desk at HP Canada Ltd. headquarters in Mississauga, Ont. Cooltown houses a handful of everyday objects, including a car, a refrigerator and a jukebox, which HP sees as candidates for its e-services. The centre will be used to show customers how mobile computing and the Internet can change their business models and serve as the starting point for an “invent process” by which HP will help turn the Cooltown prototypes into reality.

At the unveiling Tuesday, HP used a short video to convey its vision of the future. In one segment, a man driving a car was able to check voice-mail using a display projected on his windshield. When he had car trouble, he was immediately directed to a nearby service centre which had already been notified of the problems. Meanwhile, a pre-paid cab was pulling into the service centre to whisk him to his meeting on time. In another vignette, a young girl learned Spanish by approaching objects around the house and using a Web-enabled wristwatch to translate the objects’ names into Spanish. A third scenario depicted an old woman who collapses from an apparent heart attack in her home whose wristwatch instantly contacts the paramedics.

Lynn Andersen, vice-president of business marketing at HP Canada, said Canada was chosen for the second Cooltown site (the first is in Palo Alto, Calif.) because industry research has highlighted the country’s high proportion of Internet use and a strong ratio for Web access devices to the national population. She said Cooltown will work in conjunction with HP’s Mobile E-Services Bazaar, a facility launched in April where more than 400 wireless vendors and service providers develop e-service applications.

“The Mobile E-Services Bazaar is a place to foster partnerships,” she said. “Cooltown is a place where we can engage customers to make them see the opportunities open to them.”

Cooltown is part of a program run out of HP Labs, which has been responsible for more than 7,000 patents and has brought some early e-services to market. HP already offers a printer that can re-order its own supplies, for example. And the Spanish lesson from its film is not that far away: the company has already formed a partnership with Swatch to create the Web-enabled wristwatch.

Doug McGowan, general manager of HP’s service providers and mobile solutions organization in the U.S., said Cooltown began through an unusually personal application. “The first experiment came about from someone who was interested in controlling their hot-tub from the office,” he said. “The hot-tub was basically given a Web page. That may seem like kind of a silly application, but it speaks to the way devices are shifting away from that PC-centric paradigm.”

McGowan said HP’s invent process begins with a customer meeting where they look at least five years into the future, imaging the possibilities of pervasive computing in their business as suggested by the prototypes in Cooltown. From there, HP creates a custom Cooltown for the client before beginning a market pilot. “Some of this stuff is here today,” he said. “Some of it is going to take a little while . . . we see this all coming in the next five to seven years.

Anderson and McGowan admitted there are several privacy and security issues that could make e-services difficult to implement. Safety regulations might prohibit a in-car windshield display, for example, while only a handful of hospitals have created the sort of electronic patient records that could be accessed through a wristwatch.

“For many companies, this vision is very frightening,” Anderson admitted. “They don’t know how to bring their business into this market.”

McGowan added that customers are already taking the security concerns into account before they stop in at Cooltown. “At the end of every walk-through they have this kind of stuff on their minds,” he said. “We don’t have to bring it up.”

HP is planning Cooltown centres in Europe and Asia before the end of the year.

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