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Crafting a Smarter, Gentler Cell Phone

Larry Marturano doesn't want his cell phone to ring when he's sitting in church. Luckily, his phone has a built-in calendar, and he can program his phone so that it won't ring at certain times of the day. He's told it to always be respectfully silent on Sunday mornings, so it won't interrupt the sermon.

"But occasionally I'm not at church on Sunday morning," he says, "and my wife tries to get a hold of me or my son calls me, and lo and behold the cell phone doesn't ring, because I told it not to. I remember thinking 'Boy, that's really annoying, I wish it was smarter than that.' Then the next thought I had was, 'Oh yeah, that's my job.' "

Marturano is an engineer who runs a lab for Motorola near Chicago. He knows just how annoying it can be to hear a cell phone ring in a movie theater or a meeting and suddenly realize, to your horror, that it's your own phone. He and other engineers are working hard to make more polite phones -- ones that know when to be quiet and when to interrupt. The idea is that tomorrow's cell phones will be able to learn your routines and respond accordingly.

In the future, Marturano says, "as I use the phone, day after day, it learns what I like to do. It learns in what situations I answer calls. So, the vision is that over time, the cell phone gets easier to use because it only presents options to me that I'm likely to use."

For that to happen, phones will have to know what you're doing at every moment. Many phones already have GPS chips that know your location, and more sensors are on the way.

Marturano says that Motorola has one prototype that constantly checks in with your car's computer to see what's going on: "It knows how fast [the car is] going. It knows how fast it's braking. It knows whether it's turning or not." So if the car tells the phone that you're slamming on the brakes, you won't get interrupted by a call from your son's little league coach.

Similar experiments are underway at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. This time, instead of getting advice from a car, the phone relies on a wristwatch. The "eWatch" looks like a big geeky digital watch. But it also has sensors. One measures light, to see if you're in a dark room or watching TV. A motion sensor can tell if you are typing on a keyboard, and a microphone listens in to see if you're in a conversation.

Daniel Siewiorek, who helped design the eWatch, says these sensors work well on the wrist, but they wouldn't work on the phone itself. "If I put it on my cell phone, the light sensor would be in my pocket and wouldn't do me much good, while the wrist is out there and it's also one of the more active parts of your body," Siewiorek says.

The eWatch is surprisingly good at recognizing familiar activities, such as whether people are sitting at their desks or cooking dinner in their kitchens, says Siewiorek. He and his colleagues are now working on software that will let a phone learn what's the polite thing to do in each situation.

"The system can say, 'I've been here before, I've seen it.' And then it can watch what you do in that space," Siewiorek explains. "Like if you get a cell phone call and you turn the cell phone off, then the system can start associating that this may be a space where you don't want to take cell phone calls."

The trouble is, there's always an exception that even a smart phone might not understand. Maybe you hate to take calls at the gym, but then one day your daughter tries to call from the emergency room. That's why Siewiorek plans to give his device one important feature. It's a little something that he calls the "Don't you ever do that to me again" button. He says that by pressing this button, a person can tell the phone when it's made an error in judgment: "Just like maybe an assistant, you're going to politely tell them, 'Don't do that to me again, you tried something, but that's not what I want.'"

Still, some experts worry that even that kind of feedback won't be good enough to train your phone. So another option is to have the caller make the decision about whether the call is important enough to go through. The idea is that someday, your phone could answer a call by saying something like, "John is in his boss' office, and they're talking. Do you want to interrupt?"

Kay Connelly at Indiana University in Bloomington is studying how much privacy people are willing to give up in exchange for a less annoying phone. In experiments, she had people carry around a little device that would occasionally ring and present a scenario. For example, it might say, "Your friend would like to call you to tell you about his new job." People would then tell the pretend phone exactly what kinds of information it could give the caller. They could choose from things like location, activity, and whether they were with other people.

Connelly says that while there's no "one size fits all" answer, the people in her study did show some broad trends. "They tended to release as much as possible, but at the same time they didn't want everyone to know everything," she explains. "Most people are willing to release information to their work colleagues and their bosses, during the work day but not after hours. Spouses and friends and family were given a lot of information. Spouses were given the most."

That openness is what intrigues Larry Marturano at Motorola. His dream is to develop a cell phone that would help people stay emotionally connected with what their loved ones are doing. Already, his phone lets him track some things about his wife, like if she is moving or stationary. He thinks someday, phones could tell us a lot more. "If I could just know if my kids are safe, or if I could just know that my wife is thinking about me, or if I could just know that my parents are OK today, that would be a really cool application that I would love to have on my cellphone," he says.

But that kind of application would raise all kinds of privacy issues. And, it's a long way away. For now, Marturano would be happy to have a phone that just knows whether or not to bug him on Sunday morning.

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Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.