Victor Zue, Project Oxygen

June 16, 2002

When Victor Zue was chosen last year as director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, he took over the leadership of one of the world's most closely watched computer research programs, Project Oxygen. Backed by the federal government and major computer firms on three continents, Project Oxygen seeks to develop the next generation of computing hardware and software - systems designed for a world where using computers will seem as natural as breathing. Zue spoke last week about this brave new world with The Boston Globe's Hiawatha Bray.

By Globe Staff, 6/16/2002

Q. Oxygen's motto is ''pervasive, human-centered computing.'' What do you mean by ''pervasive?''

A. In five to 10 years, in developed countries, computing and communications are essentially going to be free, pervasive, everywhere. It's going to be in your walls, in your cars, on your body.

Q. We've been hearing this kind of talk for years But who needs a networked refrigerator?

A. I would like my computer to tell me that milk sitting there has been around for two weeks, so don't drink it; in fact, throw it away. I stand in front of my bathroom scale. Every day I measure myself. I measure other things about myself, and then I religiously go to the PC, go into the spreadsheet and type those numbers into that. That's stupid.

Q. So you want the scale to talk directly to your computer?

A. If all my devices have IP addresses or are all networked, they can talk to each other, and all those things would just easily show up on my own PC.

Q. How does Oxygen plan to make computers more human-centered?

A. The example I can think of is typing. I didn't learn how to touch-type until maybe five years ago. I like to be able to communicate with my machine anthropomorphically, and I want to impart these human-like capabilities so that I can do the kind of things that I do day-to-day with human beings. We think speech and vision are very good ways for people to communicate.... We ought to make a big push to make computers able to deal with those kinds of modalities.

Q. Computers can already recognize speech. What new capabilities will Oxygen offer?

A. If you talk in a subway, people begin to focus on your lips. They begin to subconsciously pay attention to other cues because the signal is too noisy. This is known as the ''cocktail party'' effect.

Q. Why would a computer need to do that?

A. I might be using a computer in a very noisy environment. You can't clean up the signal enough for it to understand what you're doing.

Q. So you're designing machines that watch you as you speak?

A. MIT professor Trevor Darrell is working on a situation. Let's say you have 10 people sitting around the table.... How do you know who is talking? The way he does it, he takes the acoustic signal and correlates that signal with the visual signal - see whose mouth is moving ... then he can steer the microphone toward that person.

Q. When will we see Oxygen-based products appearing on store shelves?

A. I think there will be low-hanging fruit that are going to happen soon, certainly before five years are up.

This story ran on page C2 of the Boston Globe on 6/16/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.