19_Emile Aarts

Vice President of Research, Philips Electronics
Eindhoven - NL

Creating A Spectacle

An ornate mirror that doubles as a flat- screen TV? It's the first consumer gizmo to come from Emile Aarts's new way of developing products: HomeLab, a house with two bedrooms (and 34 hidden cameras) where people actually live with futuristic technology. On June 11, Philips announced the release of the first Mirror TVs, with applications from luxury hotel room walls to rearview mirrors for cars.

From Emile's original entry:

Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.

In Emile Aarts' vision of the future, robot butlers won't serve a soul, but walls will. Director of Philips Research, Dr. Aarts is tasked with developing the enabling technology behind myriad products--displays, digital storage, lighting and many more. But he is also responsible for revealing how future technologies will shape our lives. It started at the 1997 Association for Computing Machinery Conference where the buzz centered on distributed computing. In an epiphany, he saw that technology can make any physical object smart. This formed the revolutionary idea of "Ambient Intelligence"--a world where our environments are sensitive and responsive, and technology lies unseen behind an unobtrusive interface. To this end, Philips Research couples socio-cultural insight with technology expertise to create humanistic technology. Rather than develop technology for technology's sake, Aarts believes technology should stimulate natural human behaviors like community. "We must carefully balance capability with desire. Technology must maintain our sense of human inheritance, and we must always have the option to turn it off and step away." Aarts drives the point home referencing a popular film: "The Minority Report presents a futuristic view of technology, but it's not a world that many people would like to live in."

What was your moment of truth?

To make Ambient Intelligence a reality, Aarts knew he needed to actively involve people in its development. Instead of typical focus groups, Aarts envisioned an "experience center" where people interact with newly developed technologies in a natural setting over an extended period of time. In April 2002, Philips' HomeLab facility opened in the Netherlands replete with cozy furniture and a fully stocked kitchen. As volunteers test technologies, researchers observe their meaningful interactions from a control center. HomeLab proved to be an information goldmine. In one project, researchers tested an animated dog projected on the wall as an interface for speech control. The dog showed various emotions, even confusion when it didn't understand commands. Users were found to be more patient with the dog than with a lifeless interface, and the lesson steered future product developments. The June 2003 introduction of the MirrorTV best illustrates HomeLab's rapid success. It is an embedded, easy-to-use technology that enables consumers to watch the news while also shaving or brushing their teeth, and its high-resolution LCD-TV blends seamlessly into a home's decor when switched off. Philips' first Ambient Intelligent product, MirrorTV delivers on promise to provide products and devices that meet the needs of consumers.

What were the results?

The MirrorTV was a hit with HomeLab users, and is currently being introduced in high-end hotels. Philips customers are also eagerly looking forward to a general consumer version. But MirrorTV also represents a breakthrough in time-to-market, going from concept to reality within a year. This has had a profound effect on Philips as a company, validating Aarts' vision of Ambient Intelligence and stimulating excited discussions about what can be expected from HomeLab as it grows. And grow it will, as Aarts works on new iterations of the project. Philips is currently planning a second HomeLab in a more central location, to make long-term stays by participants more viable and realistic. Plans for a "CarLab" and "StudioLab" (geared toward space-starved young urbanites) are in the works. And Aarts is collaborating with other researchers to establish a network of experience centers modeled on HomeLab across the globe. While Ambient Intelligence will enter our lives gradually, Aarts sees several technologies on the near horizon including intelligent, responsive lighting, and ubiquitous displays. "The very walls of our homes will show us family vacation memories or let us talk with friends, and return to inanimation at our command."

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