Bird Brains

Mort, the penguin, may look like just another cuddly stuffed toy. But looks can be deceiving. Mort is an intelligent, talking penguin. Pick up Mort and he greets you by name. When he sees several people standing together, he politely introduces them (and remembers that they've met). Show him a clock and he tells the time. When he sees an aquarium, he has been known to order sushi in Japanese. Sometimes he just stands there, muttering.

You won't find Mort at "FAO Schwartz" yet. While other toys only have stuffing, Mort has an IBM labtop running Linux, and a two-megabit-per-second wireless Internet link. With infrared eyes, he "sees" a variety of digital tags to identify objects in the vicinity.

Mort's the brainchild of Motorola Fellows Manish Tuteja and R. Dunbar Poor, and PhD candidate John Underkoffler, working with assistant professor Michael Hawley and the Media Lab's Things That Think consortium.

"Mort is a far cry from toys that blurt out a few short phrases by pulling a string on their backs," says Hawley. "He is a live network node, more powerful than many workstations." When Mort speaks, a faraway source like Disney, might be generating the dialog -- pulling the string, so to speak. The sound passes through the Internet, bounces off the home PC, flies through the wireless link into Mort's electronic brain, and comes out his beak.

"Think of Mort as an object-oriented bit stream," says Hawley. The things Mort senses -- clocks, fish tanks, or unsuspecting visitors -- cast 'digital shadows.' The shadows mix, and in so doing, the virtual objects can interact in rich and complex ways. Mort is a channel, directing bits back in response to those objects."

In many ways Mort represents a sneak preview of the world of Things That Think, where even the most commonplace objects are invisibly woven into the global digital fabric -- where everyday things can potentially send bits reverberating throughout the Net, no strings attached.

Others who have worked on this project include:

Matthew Debski
Peter Finch
Steve Gray
Maria Redin
Neelima Yeddanapudi

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