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normanhs.jpgNorman Lewis, chief strategy officer of Wireless Grids Corp., gave an interesting presentation at eComm where he showed how his company plans to liberate us from being locked into the prescribed uses of our tech gear as dictated by tech manufacturers or telecom operators.

He brought up familiar examples, like how cell phones are locked to carriers or how products from some vendors won’t work with the products of other vendors. This kind of shackle, Lewis said, runs directly counter to the current generation’s need to express itself freely.

So Syracuse, N.Y.-based Wireless Grids has created software to tie together devices of different manufacturers that run on different networks. It’s going to start testing that software in dorms at Syracuse University next week and will run the test for several months. Lewis, former head of research at French phone company Orange, disclosed that the company has a “memorandum of understanding” with Intel to work together.

The software essentially allows people to make their printers, computers, video cameras and other gear available to a network. Anyone in the network can use those resources to do whatever they want to do. Lewis said it will be interesting to see how a creative new generation will use this capability to mix and match devices, coming up with the equivalent of the old “radio frying pan” once advertised in newspapers long ago.

Some in the audience were skeptical this could be done. But Lewis contended the company’s software works regardless of the type of network, whether it is Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, WiMax or whatever. He described the problem as follows.

“We have all these devices but they don’t talk to each other,” he said. “We can’t go to the kitchen, put the ingredients together, and make something new. We are shackled. We are constrained in our behavior. We are forced into wheel chairs by the the network operators, and they put trees in our way. They prescribe what we can and can’t do. We are trying to get over this. It’s an absolute nightmare. We want to join together with our friends and just scream.”

At the same time, he said the thing that is different about kids today is that they are engaged with technology for the sake of self-expression. They want to use it to experiment with their identities.

“Our research on teens shows that the fundamental thing for them is put something out on a blog and seeing if anyone responded,” he said. “That is an acknowledgement that you exist.”

Transitioning to his company’s plans, he said the future is about control, not owning devices. The example he raised is that you could have a bunch of different devices available among a bunch of users. You could use a microphone to record all of their voices and store them in an MP3. Then you could embed that sound into a video that you create with editing software on a computer. The whole point, he said, is to “reverse engineer your own hardware so you can do what you want to do. These are your own devices and you should not worry about breaking the rules of each manufacturer.”

Lewis said he was excited about deploying software into the Syracuse University experiment, where students can tag content available for sharing and then make it available to anyone else in the group. With it, students will be able to share their screens, printers, files, sound systems, and in essence create “virtual jukeboxes.” Then, he said, once the students get hold of it, “We’ll see what kind of applications will be really computing. We want to foster a climate of innovation with personal infrastructure. This travels with you, so you always have access to your personal network.”

I have a lot of questions about how this would work and there are some answers on the company’s site. Lewis said that the company wants to get its software embedded in a wide range of devices so that they can all be connected to the grid, regardless of operating system. We’ll see if all of those manufacturers see the wisdom of this approach.

As one audience member noted, this “dream is decades old” (anyone remember General Magic?) and failed as multiple vendors couldn’t agree on a common networking or sharing technology. Lewis said that the company has solved that problem with what he called an “overlay technology.”

Wireless Grids developed its technology with $2 million in grant money from the National Science Foundation. It also received $500,000 in funding Cisco Systems, Novell, BT, Hitachi, and Nokia.


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