Intelligent Environments

A Brief History of The Intelligent Environments Group (IEG)

The Birth of Ideas

The idea for using AI to manage pervasive computing environments occurred to Vic Callaghan in 1995, while he was spending a sabbatical at the University of Connecticut. During this period he took a week out to visit his friend Keith Prettyjohns in Tucson, Arizona (Keith was his best friend while completing his PhD studies at Sheffield University). In his Tucson home Keith had installed an X10 smart home control system. Keith was an excellent programmer (BCS prize winner) and had programmed his system to do numerous things that amazed and occasionally amused Vic; he especially remembers how Keith’s system detected visitors outside his house and started an electronic dog barking inside that was completely convincing (all the more impressive given the dog was in reality a recording of Keith impersonating a dog!). While Keith’s system was smart, it was evident to Vic that the smart functionality came from the programming skills of a very smart guy, Keith, and not the technology. Vic’s research expertise was in intelligent mobile robots and AI, and thus he was hugely puzzled as to why these systems were called “smart” as they didn’t seem intelligent in terms of the robotic technology he had working on. In this, intelligence (or smartness) was rooted in the provision of autonomous machine based reasoning, planning or learning. On returning to Essex University Vic was determined to explore this issue and at the first opportunity engaged two MSc students to start investigating this issue (Simon Robinson “Networking the Home and The Smart Home”, 1995/96 & Steve Perry “Towards A Client/Server Computational Model for Domestic Data Networks: A Java Toolkit for Smart-Homes” 1995/96). In summer 2006, one of those students, Simon Robinson, succeeded in building the first smart home test bed at Essex University (based on X10 devices). In October 1996, by good fortune, Vic found himself at a postgraduate induction party, standing next to Graham Clarke (a colleague he had rarely spoken to before then), and to his amazement, Graham turned out to be a trained architect who had an interest in the same ideas, having been inspired by the 20th century pioneers of the movement commonly referred to as “modern architecture” which boasted people such as Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) who created the maxim “The house is a machine for living in“, a phrase that continues to inspire designers of intelligent buildings and environments.  Further, Graham held a doctorate in psychoanalytic studies and a masters in computing, making him uniquely placed to take the intelligent environments research into unchartered, but intellectually stimulating, territory.  Graham’s background coupled with Vic’s robotics expertise became an alliance that shaped and defined a unique area that grew to become the Intelligent Environments Group (IEG), giving it an innovative character and research focus.  Graham’s influence was profound, having brought ideas from the modern architecture movement. Within this context Vic found himself, as usual, working in the Essex University Robotics Lab (The Brooker laboratory, that he had founded many years earlier) and whilst there, in a memorable moment, he found himself staring at the outside of one of one the Marvin series of mobile robots, a box-like structure with numerous connected sensors, actuators, processors and other components when he was struck by the similarity of the robot box he was staring at, and the box-like room he was in with its myriad of connected real-time electrical systems, and he wondered if the same techniques used to create robust control of intelligent mobile robots (eg Behaviour based architecture) could be used to create robust intelligent autonomous management systems for intelligent buildings and environments; remembering Graham’s description of new architecture they quickly recast this as a variation of Le Corbusier’s famous phrase “The house is a machine for living in” into  “an intelligent building is a robot we live inside” thereby creating a hypothesis that subsequent research projects would go on to explore. An outcome of this view was that digital homes and other pervasive computing systems are, in fact, essentially identical to mobile robots, simply moving in an abstracted space rather than a physical space and, within this abstracted space, virtually all the mobile robot theorems are valid (a type of implicit duality between robots and pervasive computing spaces!).

The IEG Takes Shape

In the same year (1996), Graham and Vic began co-supervising MSc students working in this new area and from this pool they got their first PhD student, Susannah Sharples, who began working on a project that sought to explore applications of intelligent buildings to social care applications. The most notable aspect of Sue’s work was that she was the first person to explore the new IEG hypothesis (mobile robots are equivalent to intelligent buildings) by investigating the application of behaviour based architectures (from robotics) to the domain of intelligent buildings; and in the process defined a basic set of intelligent environment behaviours that are still in use today (goal seeking, Safety, Emergency, Manual, Economy, comfort). This project also coined the term “embedded-agent”. At the same time in 1996 they started an MSc course in “Intelligent Buildings” that later morphed into “Ambient Intelligence and Pervasive Computing“, and ran until Vic became emeritus, in 2010. Later in 1998, Graham and Vic’s skills were complemented by the addition of Martin Colley and John Standeven who brought invaluable skills in networking, software, embedded-computing and simulation. Around this time an exceptionally talented PhD student, Hani Hagras, was completing a PhD on the application of Fuzzy logic to mobile robot controllers. Graham and Vic were keen to explore whether Hani’s fuzzy-logic ideas could be applied to improve the performance of the behaviours based architecture work started by Sue Sharples and so the IEG expanded to include another key member and technology. Since then, Hani has gone on to become the leading exponent on the application of fuzzy logic architectures to intelligent environments.

The IEG Experimental Infrastructure

In terms of experimental infrastructure, in 1999 the IEG applied for two major grants, an EU IST FP5 Future and Emerging Technologies project, eGadgets and a UK TSB (then DTI) grant “Pervasive Home Environment Networking”. This gave rise to the creation of the first IEG testbed, the “Intelligent Dormitory” (iDorm) and the employment of three key senior research officers; Hakan Duman, Arran Holmes and Jeannette Chin. The iDorm, was built by retrofitting a University office with furniture that is found in a university student dormitory (bed, desk, chair, wardrobe, etc.) and integrating a range of networked devices and technologies so that almost every aspect of the space could be monitored or controlled by the embedded-agents that constantly evolve. To make the technology more widely available, two emulations were created an “mDorm” (a desktop version of the iDorm) and the iWorld (an online simulation). The success of these environments in generating high quality research output, resulted in many more funded projects, including two UK government “Science Research Infrastructure Fund” (SRIF) grants that enabled, in 2007, the iDorm was migrated to a larger space where it comprised the previous bed / study room in addition to a living room, bath/shower room and a control room. Along with the move, the iDorm gained some extra features such as false walls / ceiling and a rich set of media functionality. The inclusion of cavity walls / ceilings allowed the technology to be hidden from the occupants, feigning the appearance of a normal home and thereby enabling much longer-term trials to be undertaken (weeks or months). The iSpace was officially opened at the first “Intelligent Environments” conference in 2005 by the ceremonious act of the Essex Vice Chancellor (Professor Ivor Crewe) turning on its lights from a wi-fi enabled PDA, viewed by the conference delegates on a projected screen in the building foyer. An article in the University’s in-house newspaper, “Wyvern”, carried an article describing the opening of the iSpace (known, at that time, as iDorm2 after its predecessor iDorm1). The iDorm role continued as an experimental space for PhD students until December 2010 when, thanks to another UK SRIF grant, the IEG made the decision to diversify its experimental capability and convert the iDorm1 into an “intelligent classroom” thereby building on the groups growing collaboration with the Shanghai Jiao Tong University eLearning group which was ongoing since around 2004, collaborating on the design of smart classrooms, affective learning and mixed reality immersive learning spaces. This later activity has recently led to collaboration on a concept labelled intelligent educational pods (ePods) or educational desks (eDesks). Around this time (2009), Ken Guild joined the group and the pervasive computing experimental architecture was expanded to encompass the entire university, with the infrastructure taking the name, iCampus.

This then brings our brief overview of the IEG to the current date; October 2011. In writing this brief overview we are conscious that we have skipped over many significant individual contributions. However, as time allows we hope to add more detail to this account and, if we have omitted any significant milestones, or overlooked mentioning people, we apologise but earnestly request that you email us so we can correct any omissions or inaccuracies; only from your input, can we make this record more accurate and useful.

Since writing the original version of this page it came to light that Essex University Intelligent Environments pedigree can be traced back to a much earlier date as, by a disconnected coincidence, in 1979 Ian Witten (now a professor at Department of Computer Science, University of Waikato, New Zealand) working with Andy Wingfield and Neil McArthur, published a paper in Wireless World, December 1979 issue (p46-51) entitled “The Intelligent Plug; controlling remote domestic appliances by microcomputer“. Life is full of strange coincidences!

The are also a number of videos showing various milestones in the early history of the IEG at Essex. For an insight into the current research, look at the IEG web site and the Digital Lifestyles Centre web site.