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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the practical use of Sixth Sense

Pranav Mistry, of IIT Mumbai and MIT Media Lab, made significant waves with his invention Sixth Sense (TED video1, video2).

There is tremendous potential to superimposing information on the real world. Over 80% of the population, at least once the "computing adolescence" passes on this planet, is likely to be involved in non-computer-centric jobs. If information, knowledge and wisdom pertinent to their jobs can be supplied to them in time, on demand, superimposed seamlessly upon their physical world, they will have no reason to actually dirty their hands with information technology.

This is akin to very few of us having to learn electric circuitry or plumbing (or agriculture) today. Electricity and plumbing happen in the background, with a small percentage of the population being experts in those specializations. Those guys work the pipes and tubes in the basement, to get the technology to work seamlessly for the rest of us. When we need to plug-in or flush-out something, it works as expected (most of the time). Once it is mature, information technology also is likely to become a utility like this. IT is adolescent now because everyone needs to know about browsers, anti-virus and plug-ins. But this will pass.

Mistry's invention is a step towards this goal. There is a tremendous amount of computation behind every little "utility" he is demonstrating - e.g., dialing phone numbers from his palm, manipulating photographs on a (physical) wall, playing a video game on a plain piece of paper. But all this computation is moved totally into the background, and happens silently, seamlessly. The wearers of the Sixth Sense pendents ideally need not know anything about how it does what it does. They can simply go about their lives, relying on the fact that the information they need will be there when they need it, where they need it.

But that is the ideal situation. What about today? The common question I encounter when I speak to people about Sixth Sense is "so, what is the killer app?". The technology is cool, no doubt, but is there a cool, practically useful application in the near future?

It is possible that we will see cool edutainment apps that ipod-wearing youth worldwide could go crazy about. But I am interested in a different killer app for Sixth Sense.

I believe that training vocational skills is a huge potential application. Apprenticeship, over-the-shoulder-mentoring, big-brother-mentoring - these concepts have proven to be highly effective in skilling people. It is well-known that no amount of classroom or computer-based training can be a substitute for these. If you are a novice electrician or a plumber, and if your more experienced colleague looks over your shoulder when you are doing a certain job, to practically correct you, guide you, alert you & educate you, your learning is bound to be significantly accelerated. This is true of most other vocations also.

With appropriate adaptation, we believe that Sixth Sense can very effectively take the place of a big-brother mentor, potentially revolutionizing the vocational skills training market place. We are actively exploring this possibility.

(If interested, please write to me for further discussion. - SM)

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