Computer Grains

Developing Components for Pervasive Computing

Computer_grains_M3_lResearchers at the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science labs of the University of Michigan have developed what could be the smallest fully functioning computer ever. It’s about the size of a grain of rice yet contains a processor, antenna and other sensors, including a version with imaging capabilities. The device is powered and controlled by light, removing the need for a power source — a major limiting factor in shrinking components.

The engineers behind the Michigan Micro Mote (or M3) say the computer is ready to ship, and that several industries including medical device firms and oil drillers already have uses in mind. The ability to place dedicated low-power computers in small crevices and tiny objects will enable not only the Internet of things, but a pervasive level of computing that could drive changes in enterprises and lifestyles. It’s one of the macro trends of the coming decade.

Ubiquitous computing — the concept of placing computing power in even the most ordinary objects — is expected to create natural interactions between things and people, leading to a new age of discovery and efficiency. Like most major trends, realization could take a generation, and hype and excitement comes and goes. But engineering feats like the development of the M3 have taken years.

Researchers are indicating that work so far is a warm-up for a grander scale of minuscule — some top labs across the world, including at Michigan, are working on “smart dust”, shrinking processors and sensors down to millimetres. Fields like pharmacology might never be the same.

For now, the basic building blocks of pervasive computing still have significant limitations. Michigan researchers say that connectivity, for example, is limited by the requirement for small antennas and power for transmission. Data can only currently be transmitted within about two meters of M3 units, restricting practical usage scenarios. Medical devices and some environmental analysis could use such components, but they wouldn’t meet the needs of long-distance research without retrieval.

Engineers at the University of Michigan say that components like the M3 will open the door to new classes of computing forms, and the applications are almost limitless. Ubiquitous computing has been part of wireless industry chant for decades. It’s encouraging to see news of real-world developments to enable its realization.

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