T-Engine: Ubiquitous Computing

Back when I started computing, I used Fortran on an IBM 370 and timesharing via an IBM Selectric-like teletype. Many users--one computer.

At that same time, I got my first taste of microcomputers, what we'd call personal computers now, by building a MITS Altair with an 8080 CPU and 4K of RAM for the College of Mines (my undegrad is in Metallurgical Engineering). One user--one computer.

Now, of course, I routinely carry 4 or 5 computers around with me all the time (if you count things like my iPod and Canon S500) and I'm dependent on computers being everywhere. One user--many computers.

The problem of course, is that these "ubiquitous" computers cooperate imperfectly--some don't cooperate at all. For example, the computers in my pick-up and the computers in my laptop bag don't know the other exists. Even hooking the computer in my iPod to the computer in my car stereo, a no-brainer from a functionality standpoint, requires interfacial handstands.

Now, a Japanese-government sponsored research consortium that include five chip makers and 17 other Japanese high-tech firms, has announced that the T-Engine, a ubiquitous computing platform is ready for prime time. T-Engine is a platform that developers can use to build ubiquitous computing solutions from commercially available products. The platform includes four different types of T-Engine boards:

  • Standard T-Engine are used for smart phones and other portable information gadgets;
  • Micro T-Engine are used for devices with relatively basic user interface functions like a toaster or microwave oven;
  • Nano T-Engine are used for for small home electronic appliances like a stereo receiver; and
  • Pico T-Engine for adding ubiquitous computing to the smallest of components such as valves, sensors, switches, and so forth.

The platform runs a real-time OS called iTron. Toyota is using T-Engine components at a smart house demonstration at the Nagoya Expo.

T-Engine includes built in support for responding to RFID chips, bar codes, smart tags, and so on. This provides for some interesting uses.

Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport is spearheading the testing of the UID Center's Autonomous Movement Support Project. Electronic tags embedded in pavement stones and street furniture will supply users with location-specific information "anytime, anywhere, to anyone." In the cities of Kobe and Tsuwano, hundreds of electronic tags and road sensors have been embedded in the pavement, sidewalks, and street furniture, providing information to tourists about historical sites and to wheelchair users about obstacles.

You could imagine a world where everything is tagged and screaming out its location to anything that asks. There are, naturally, all kinds of privacy and security implications, but I've found that that's the definition of interesting problems: if there aren't security and privacy implications, you're probably not doing anything very fun.

You may be thinking that a project of this scope doesn't stand a chance of becoming the dominant embedded computing system, but I think there's at least a good chance. After all, Japan makes a great number of the cars, electronics, and appliances that are consumed in the US and the rest of the world. What's more, the Japanese government has shown their ability before to orchestrate entire industries for national advantage. With any luck your 2007 Toyota Camry and your Mitsubishi food processor will be exchanging recipes in the not too distant future.