Bridging the gap between real and virtual worlds

Bridging the gap between real and virtual worlds

Imagine a world where your house adjusts the temperature and lighting according to your preferences, your car informs the service centre that it needs servicing, your favourite stores recognize you and recommend clothes based on your style preferences and a restaurant recommends recipes keeping in mind your taste and allergies when you sit down for a meal. This might sound like a futuristic movie, but it isn’t as distant in the future as one may think.

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Every day, technology is evolving towards a common goal—to improve human experience. It is in this effort that we seek to connect everything around us and integrate technology into everyday objects, making the human-computer interaction easier.

In simple terms, this is what pervasive computing or ubiquitous computing is all about—an environment which provides the power of computing anywhere, at any time and on any device, through a network of sensors and smart devices. Today, we use smartphones, interactive white boards, RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and similar devices to improve our productivity, to connect with each other and to improve the quality of our lives. Going forward, there will be an explosion in the number and types of devices one would use. These interconnected devices will help bridge the gap between the real and the virtual world.

The three key areas which, I believe, will drive the evolution of pervasive computing are: sensor networks, cloud-based computing and intelligence.

The easiest way to understand these concepts is to look at the evolution of computer gaming. From single-player desktop games that were controlled by the keyboard, gaming has come a long way. We can now play multiplayer games with users across the world. Even game controls have changed considerably. Consider the leading gaming consoles of today—be it the Sony PlayStation, the Nintendo Wii or the Microsoft Xbox—they all offer a version which can create an immersive, interactive and responsive user experience by allowing users to play using gestures and voice commands. This creates a natural interface for users, completely changing the dynamics of human-computer interaction.

Going forward, our interactions with everyday objects like refrigerators or home-lighting systems or room-heating systems will be driven by sensor networks. Such a network of sensors and the possibility of connecting every object on the planet are already being explored by various organizations in their pursuit to shape the future of technology. Some of these developments have already found commercial usage. A leading hotel in Amsterdam, for instance, provides a unique, integrated hospitality experience. The hotel has RFID cards and a hand-held gadget which allows guests to specify their preferences. These preferences are saved and used for all future interactions. Thus, whenever guests check in the next time, the hotel already “knows" their preferences and services them accordingly. The next time they walk into their room, everything from the lighting, temperature, curtain control to the entertainment system, all of which are linked together, adjust themselves according to the guest’s earlier-saved preferences. In fact, the hotel only has an electronic check-in. This personalization and unique customer experience has worked wonders for the hotel.

There are similar examples of sensor networks being used in industries like auto, retail, finance and even healthcare to understand consumer behaviour and to help with customization. I was recently asked by my doctor to wear a device that monitored my blood pressure through the day. My doctor was then able to collect the data from the device and prescribe personalized medication based on this data. The possibilities that lie in such monitoring in the field of healthcare are endless. This will help create a more personalized system and reduce several risks.

An outcome of such pervasive technology is the ability to gather large amounts of information from sources like social networking sites and online shopping portals. This information, and the wealth of insight which it provides, is enabling enterprises to become intelligent by leveraging them to become participative, responsive and relevant to the specific needs of their end-users. Enterprises are also analysing this data to deduct patterns and make decisions based on it to better understand their competitors and the market. The online retail space has been an early adopter of these benefits. Key players like Amazon are leading the way with their strong analytics usage, which is enabling them to create a personalized experience for each customer. Recognizing and remembering regular choices, making suggestions based on previous buys and alerts on discounted prices are some of their unique offerings.

Finally, the third and one of the fastest growing trends that will play a key role in enabling a pervasive world is the availability of online computing capabilities, better known as cloud computing. Today, we have access to computing power anywhere, at any time, and on almost any computing device. It offers enterprises immense potential to reinvent their business models.

A popular example of a cloud-based offering is the multitude of services offered by Google. They use cloud servers to help store data on remote servers. This allows Google’s end-users to access blogs, mail, documents, videos and several apps through various devices such as smartphones, laptops or tablets. Moving towards a cloud-based concept of computing also overcomes the need for physical storage devices. Cloud computing is, therefore, helping organizations optimize their capex investments to be more nimble in their operations, and to be responsive to their fluctuating business needs. Cloud computing is evolving not just at the organizational level, but at the individual user level as well. The cloud computing space is still evolving, but it will certainly play an integral role in business strategies across industries going forward.

To conclude, over the past three decades, I have seen computing power evolve from the mainframe days, when it was used to manage complex calculations, to the hand-held era, where it is used to power lifestyle gadgets. This unprecedented transition of computing power—from a confined room (mainframes) to our offices (desktops), to our homes (laptops) and, finally, to our hands (mobiles, tablets, etc.)—has opened up new, unprecedented opportunities. Never before in the history of mankind have so many individuals from so many countries across the world been connected and networked. Also, never before have so many diverse physical objects, ranging from mobile phones to microwave ovens, been a part of this networked environment.

We are now faced with a unique opportunity to imagine and create a future that truly leverages the endless possibilities of this computing power for personal, social and economic progress. We are indeed living in exciting times.

The author is set to take over as chief executive officer and managing director of Infosys Technologies Ltd on 21 August. This is the fifth in a series of articles he’s writing for Mint on seven strategic themes that Infosys has identified and sees as transforming businesses going forward.