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Scientists at Microsoft Research Cambridge (MSRC) are working on a range of new technologies and gadgets that might find their way into our lives. They've come up with a message board that you can send text messages to, a whereabouts clock that keeps track of where family members are, and in collaboration with Vodafone, a TouchToy, which we will get to later.

MSRC's Computer Mediated Living (CML) Group is charged with investigating the kinds of technologies that could be introduced into people's lives. The idea is that it starts with the way people live, and try to find ways that technology can enhance that.

The first project is called HomeNote, and it is a laptop-sized screen that acts as a message board. Family members can leave handwritten notes for each other, or send text messages to the board from their mobile phones.

Ken Wood, head of the CML group, said: "We wanted to look at the idea that you could text message a place, rather than a person."

He explained that HomeNote has been trialled in homes in the local area, and the initial results have been promising. "People have been using it interactively. One family's dad used it to feel more connected to his family," he added. "There is no facility to reply yet, but there will be in the next version."

The Whereabouts clock is an idea lifted from the Harry Potter films. For anyone who has managed to avoid exposure to the films, we should explain that one of the families, the Weasleys, has a clock that tracks the location of each family member. The CML group decided to see if they could build one for real.

It turns out that coarsegrain location finding is possible with current technology - such as cell-ID tracking of mobile phones. The clock has the faces of each family member shown as at work, at home, at school, or elsewhere. Of course, it could also be useful for those "Where the hell did I leave my phone?" moments.

Wood says that the aim is to eventually tie the technology into a messaging calendar, but this is of long term interest.

Which brings us to the Touch Toy. Wood says that the project was prompted by the idea of exploring ways of communicating with each other than just texting or phoning.

The Touch Toy is a small, key-fob sized device that has some kind of input mechanism, and some kind of output, Ken Wood said. At the moment, the input mechanism is giving the toy a gentle squeeze, and the output is a vibration.

(You can see where we are going with this already, cant you?)

The Touch Toy relays the input to your phone, connecting via bluetooth. Your phone then sends an instruction to another phone, which relays the signal to that phone's touch toy. The second touch toy then vibrates. Or, as Wood put it: "I squeeze my touch toy, my wife's vibrates".

Gosh, what possible application could there be for something like this? ®

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