A Massachusetts student has created an inexpensive, aspirin-size computer that could help usher in a new generation of connected home appliances, from VCRs to coffee makers to small cameras, controlled over the Internet from almost anywhere.
"The implications of this are more than a silly little competition among a bunch of researchers," said H. Shrikumar, who invented the computer. "This has tremendous application in the way it might change our lives."
The project also stands as testament to how much utility a concise programmer can pack into a limited amount of computer memory, even in these days of multimegabyte software applications with millions of lines of code.
The tiny computer is connected to the Internet from Shrikumar's apartment near the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he studies specialized machine automation. It includes a tiny 4-megahertz processor he bought for 49 cents and a small 32-kilobyte memory chip that stores World Wide Web pages and other data.
Although those numbers are paltry compared to the speed and storage of modern personal computers, which run thousands of times faster and contain hundreds of times more storage, the tiny computer still is more powerful than typical computers less than a decade ago.
Shrikumar, 33, said his computer can be built for less than $1, making it practical to install the devices in a variety of home electronics and appliances.
Some existing appliances, such as modern thermostats or newer coffee makers, can be programmed individually. But appliances connected using the language of the Internet, called "TCP/IP," could communicate with each other even if made by different manufacturers.
Just before the hour the homeowner sets for his alarm clock, for example, the thermostat could automatically turn up the heat, the television could turn on the morning news and the coffee could begin brewing.
"In one click, the whole house now wakes up with you," he said. "This can make our way of life much easier."
Similarly, with the appliances connected to a home network that also maintained a continuous connection with the Internet, consumers could use the Web browser on an office computer to program their VCRs, turn on their porch lights, even activate cameras to check on the baby sitter.
The new wave of high-speed Internet connections using cable TV modems or new digital phone lines already offer such continuous hookups.
Shrikumar's Internet computer is smaller than one built earlier this year at Stanford University, which includes a much more powerful processor and lots more memory. But the Stanford computer costs more than $800.
Vaughan Pratt, the Stanford professor in charge of that project, said the implications of Shrikumar's work are enormous. "Everything that shrinks down to a size that can be embedded in small spaces will have a big impact," Pratt said.
SincShrikumar began testing his computer this summer, and after he announced it on a private Internet discussion group, about 5,000 people daily from around 70 countries have visited the tiny computer's Web site .
"This was just a fun hobby project," said Shrikumar, who expects to graduate next year. "It caught my attention and demanded that it be done."
He is not sure what he will do once he leaves school.
"There are lots of things one can do," he said. "It's a big world."