Researchers hope to build systems so computer workplaces can be found wherever workers are.
Imagine a future when you sit down in a conference room far from your office or home and with your thumbprint or a card access all the information on your personal computer.
Instead of carrying a laptop, you just use the computer on anyone's desk to access your own terminal.
A future with ambient computational environments like this is being developed on the Kansas University campus by a team of researchers led by Gary Minden, chief technologist of the Information and Telecommunication Technology Center and professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
"When you go into a building, you expect lights to be there," Minden said. "Why not your computer workspace?"
Minden's research is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. In four years, Minden, 14 other faculty members and a systems engineer, hope to have several "smart rooms" on the campus.
Most of the rooms will be in ITTC's home at Nichols Hall on West Campus, but some offices in the electrical engineering and computer science department on the main campus also will be smart rooms.
As many as 15 rooms will be used in the project, Minden said.
Plus, the researchers will try to determine "what does this all mean in the home environment?" Minden said.
Some of the problems the researchers must tackle are how to secure private information, yet make it accessible anywhere.
Minden hopes something as simple as a thumbprint can be used to allow people access to their computer workspaces.
Developing a computer system that will allow smart rooms also may require changes in the way people store their information, Minden said.
"Another part of it is to shift back to a more central site," he said.
In the first three decades of computing, users worked from a central memory that they accessed from terminals. Now, most people work from personal computers with memory stored on personal drives or in servers located nearby.
One way to make the change to centralization may come from the Internet. Already Internet e-mail services like Yahoo!, America Online and Excite offer people not only e-mail but online address books and organizers.
The research at KU already has drawn the interest of the federal government and the telecommunications industry, which may want to provide additional funds for the research.
Minden declined to say what businesses and federal agencies may be interested in the research.
Information technology is a focus of research at KU and in Kansas, said Jim Roberts, associate vice chancellor of research at KU.
"KU has a very strong expertise in information technology research," Roberts said. "KU has ended up in a really good position."
KU has been designated the lead institution in the state for information technology research. The university achieved that position by decisions to invest in information technology during the past 30 years, he said.
In addition to work like Minden's, KU researchers work on its applications in such areas as bioinformatics, which is a project to track species movement being done by the Museum of Natural History at KU.
But, the work of people like Minden is important to determining the future of information technology, Roberts said.
"They're really building the things that make it work," he said.
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