Memories left in the air, technology that helps you remember, communication jewellery - these are some of the hot new ideas that are being worked on at the legendary AT&T Labs.

Ten years ago, if anyone told you that your phone could beam live footage of the Olympics, help you navigate Bangalore or be your sweet-voiced personal assistant, you would have probably laughed. But the furious pace of innovation in mobile technology has ensured that YouTube apps, GPS systems and voice commands are today standard features for many smart-phones.

This however, is just the beginning. A visit to the legendary Bell Labs, now part of telecom giant AT&T’s research and innovation centre, shows that the boundaries of mobile communications are likely to be stretched much further. At the AT&T Labs in US, 1300 scientists and engineers (many of them of Indian origin), are working on new technologies, devices and applications that help simplify everything from parenting to driving on the highway. In short, preparing for what AT&T calls ‘living a networked life’.

Track your stuff

Always forgetting your wallet at home? AT&T Labs researcher Don Henderson has a smart solution- a device that runs a checklist of all your belongings as you leave home. GotMyStuff, as the application is called, tags important personal items that you carry around with you with an RFID chip. Thereafter, your phone or in-car display can automatically scan your surroundings to spot these items. If you leave home with your wallet missing, you get an alert the moment you rev up the car. This is in fact the same technology that logistics companies use to keep track of the parcels they ferry around the world.

Messages ‘in the air’

Forget leaving a message for a person. Leave a message at a location instead. Location-based services, an entire new genre of services under development at AT&T labs marry the internet with real world GPS, to deliver a message or service to you at a specific location.

Wondering how this works? One quirky service is Air Graffiti, which allows users to place videos, posts and songs ‘in the air’ at physical locations.

Imagine visiting a multiplex to stumble upon a ‘virtual’ movie review written by your friend and ‘posted’ at the location. Or walking around ruins at Hampi with a virtual tour guide telling you, via your mobile device, exactly what bit of history is associated with each spot.

Another nice twist to location-based services is Donde, a service that allows you to send and retrieve messages exactly where you need them. How convenient it would be if your 8-year old messaged you on the way from office, that she needed pictures of the Siberian crane for her school project! Instead of telling you after you landed. That’s what Donde does. It allows users to compose and store messages, to be sent to a person when he/she reaches a specific location.

All Talk

Many cool applications are being designed around Watson - AT&T’s speech recognition platform too. Srinivas Bangalore, a technical specialist at AT&T Labs, demonstrates an application which transforms your phone into a pocket translator while travelling. This application takes words spoken or written by you in a particular language, automatically translates it into a required language and then speaks out or writes out the lines in the language of your choice. It currently translates seven languages with more to come. Useful, isn’t it, if you are stuck in Paris and have only a nodding acquaintance with French.

Here’s an application that comes to the aid of harried parents. StorEbook - an application that can narrate bedtime stories to your child with all the appropriate inflections and sound effects that you would use. As the story is read, words narrated are simultaneously highlighted in the e-reader, helping develop vocabulary. Taniya Mishra, the researcher who worked on this project would like to customise this application so stories can be actually read out in Mom’s or Dad’s voice. The StorEbook can easily morph into an educational tool too, to help adults acquire reading skills.

For women

There are a bunch of new gizmos for multi-tasking women too. One idea is wearable communication jewellery. Instead of lugging a bulky phone or tablet around, you simply wear a necklace and matching ear rings that double up as a mobile device. Then, there’s the Haptic steering wheel, which helps you get driving directions via vibrations in the steering wheel rather than your GPS system.

Planned innovation

Where does a research outfit like AT&T Labs get so many bright ideas on communications? Are they all from the researchers? No. Apart from the engineers at its Labs, AT&T taps three other sources quite actively for its research ideas. One is its own employees.

The Innovation Pipeline (TIP) is AT&T internal idea sourcing Web site open to all employees. On this, any employee can submit a product idea which is then voted on, by all the members of the site. Ideas that get the top votes on this site are then taken up in the right earnest by the AT&T Labs for further development. So far, the 1,20,000 employees on TIP have come up with a breathtaking 14,000 ideas that have been thus evaluated.

This apart, the company is also in touch with some of the world’s top venture capital firms to get in touch with entrepreneurs who are working on new ideas in the area of communications. These venture capital firms identify entrepreneurs, who then make a pitch to AT&T engineers on their ideas in what it calls ‘speeddating’ sessions with its top brass.

AT&T held 500 of these sessions last year. The best ideas are taken up, researched further and commercialised with a share of profit for the entrepreneur. A third area where innovations take shape is in the AT&T Foundry. These innovation centres open up AT&T’s platform to thousands of free-lance application developers who work on individual projects. Promising applications are fast-tracked for commercial use.

(This article was published on August 9, 2012)
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