HomeToys Interview

Interview published in HomeToys website

HomeToys interview with Howard Gutowitz, founder and CEO of Eatoni Ergonomics

In Europe, there are many TV shows where people send in text messages with their mobile phone as a way of interacting with a program. Typically, the phone number scrolls across the bottom of the screen, and people text to that phone number. The ways to use that interaction are only limited by the broadcaster's and programmer's imagination.


What is Eatoni Ergonomics?

Eatoni Ergonomics is a company that is making handheld devices easier to use, in particular, easier to use for entering text. We're working on cell phones, cordless phones, remote controls, anything with a 12-key telephone keypad. Using predictive software, we can make the telephone keypad just about as fast and easy to use to enter text as a regular full-sized keyboard.

One of the big frustrations with handheld devices is that it's so painful and time consuming to write things with them. Even putting a name in a cell phone phonebook is laborious. On most systems, so-called multi-tap systems, you need to hit the 7 key four times to get the letter "s", for instance. Most people don't have the patience for it. What we do is significantly reduce the number of keystrokes needed for each letter. Most of the time, you'll need one keystroke, not four, to get the letter "s".

An important application area is interactive TV. For instance, at the last CES show we demoed a TV we built with Sanyo. We installed our software in their TV so that using a regular remote control, you can easily type text into the TV.

Why is it important for people to be able to interact with their TV using text?

The main problem with "interactive TV" is that it's not very interactive. A typical thing is to have a yes/no button on the remote control, so that you can, say, vote in a televised poll, or choose if you want to watch a certain program. But the richness of what you can do or say with a yes/no button is pretty limited. If you can enter text easily on the remote then you can not only vote, but send in your opinion to be read on the air. You can not only choose yes or no to watch a certain program in a list, but you can tell the TV things like, "I'd like to see the 'I Love Lucy' episode where she sets her hair on fire" and this text can be sent back to TV provider who looks up your show and puts it on for you. Rather than scrolling through menus to find a channel, you enter key words in a search engine. Rather than scrolling though options to adjust the TV, you enter some text to tell it what you want to do. In general, the range of things you can control or participate in becomes much greater.

Why can't people just use a QWERTY keyboard?

Well they can, in principle. But in practice they don't very much. There was a very interesting study done where the real interaction of real people with their interactive TV (and other broadband info) was followed in a bunch of homes over a long period of time. What they found was that people associate the TV with "lounging around comfortably" and "interacting with the rest of the family" and that the keyboard interfered with the lounging and interacting. With the keyboard you have to sit up to use it properly, and use both your hands, and generally concentrate on what you are doing. Imagine the dilemma of the teenage guy who has finally gotten his arm successfully around his girl, and yet needs to get out the keyboard to ask the TV for a replay of the last touchdown.

No matter how you look at it, using a keyboard is much more intrusive than using a remote control, and a big departure from the remote-control using habits we've built up over the last 30 or 40 years. At Eatoni, what we're saying is "don't make the consumer have to change all his habits, and adopt his lifestyle to a keyboard. Just make it possible to enter text using the remote control."

Do people need to get a new TV remote to interact with their TV by texting?

It depends on the system, but generally: no. Most set-top boxes allow new software to be downloaded over the air. So the provider could beam our program out to the consumer's set-top box, and they could start using it right away using their regular remote control.

What does texting do to make the TV interactive?

In Europe, there are many TV shows where people send in text messages with their mobile phone as a way of interacting with a program. Typically, the phone number scrolls across the bottom of the screen, and people text to that phone number. The ways to use that interaction are only limited by the broadcaster's and programmer's imagination. A simple thing which makes a lot of money is to just display messages that are sent in across the bottom of the screen. Birthday messages, for instance, or "I love you, from Cindy." It's similar to requesting a song on the radio. A more sophisticated use is for people to text in questions to a celebrity being interviewed live. Or audience participation in the plot of a soap opera, where viewers can choose a next action for the actors. Game shows offer a lot of possibilities. First person to text in the correct answer to a question wins a prize, for instance.

Besides this sort of interaction with on-going TV shows, there is the use of texting for the TV equivalent of e-commerce. It is easy to imagine a cross between Ebay and the home shopping network being very successful. In this case you can text in bids or choices for products to display. You could also have an online catalog, where you text in keywords for products you are looking for, and then the purchase possibilities are narrowcast to you.

Then there are the applications which I already mentioned where you can select the show or kinds of shows you want to watch by sending in requests using text.

What other applications are being developed for texting (especially those related to home automation and networking)?

On the home automation front: People have been talking for several years about home networks where your refrigerator talks to your toaster which talks to your food processor, and all of them are on the internet. One company, LG, has put 55 researchers on the task of making your refrigerator the center of the home networking universe. The refrigerator, they argue is always on, and so is a natural candidate for being the command center. Whatever. (see http://www.lg.ca/product/r_S73ct.asp ) What all of these schemes seem to miss however, is that a _person_ has to talk to all of these devices which are talking to each other. A person has to control and monitor all the things that all the devices are saying to each other. The clear way to do that is to have a handheld remote control which permits commands to be entered in plain language, and sent to the devices in a machine language they understand. You should be able to type in things like, "Refrigerator, please tell the toaster to remind you to order more bread on the internet whenever it makes 15 pieces of toast." Without some sort of universal control like that, I think visions like those of LG will have a very hard time taking off. There just won't be any way to make the network do anything useful, and to make it adapt to the current needs of the household.

And then as far as home networking, one remark is that cordless phones are increasingly becoming like little home networks in themselves. You can have multiple handsets (up to 6) on many current designs. This means that you can potentially use the phone as a base station for two-way radio (or text chat) within the home, or for multi-person games, or for connecting your computer via one handset and leaving others available for voice calls or texting. In the competition between the various home networking standards, what might finally win is the cordless phone standard. The reason being that there is nothing to install or add, as the cordless phone is already a "home network in a box". Eatoni's main connection to these developments is through the facilitation of text entry. We have deals for instance with Philips and Panasonic to put our system in cordless phones. Whenever we can, we work to convince manufacturers to broaden their concept of the cordless phone to make it more of a full service home network. We feel that will be good for us, and good for them.

Looking into your crystal ball ... how will texting be incorporated into our daily lives in the future?

When I come to work, I sit down and start reading and sending email. This goes on all day every day, and I think a lot of people must live like that. The only thing that keeps me chained to my desk, really, is that it is just too slow to use a mobile device to enter text, and good wireless connectivity is not there yet. The first part we're trying to do something about, and the second part will come along sooner or later. Already you can go to Finland and see teenagers sitting around in coffee shops for hours doing nothing but sending short messages to each other on their cell phones. I don't know whether it's a bright vision or a somber one, but I'm pretty convinced that for many people their participation in the mobile text-messaging network will be nearly identical to their participation in the social network.

About Howard Gutowitz

Eatoni CEO Howard Gutowitz
Eatoni CEO Howard Gutowitz

Dr. Gutowitz, founder and CEO of Eatoni Ergonomics, is a former cryptographer and Los Alamos chaos theorist and mathematician/physicist at Rockefeller University. He has held tenured and non-tenured positions in teaching and research in the US and abroad, and has served as a consultant to industry as well as to both the US and French governments. Previous startup experience includes an internet publishing startup, Chiliad, as Chief Technology Officer. He is the author of numerous scientific publications including articles, books, and patents, and is recognized worldwide as an expert in cryptography, cellular automata and artificial life.

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