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MIT seeks computing revolution

'T-Party' venture with Taiwanese firm aims for 'human-centered,' intuitive technologies

MIT is teaming up with Taiwan's Quanta Computer in a five-year, $20 million research effort to define the future of computing and create the next generation of communications platforms and products.

The project, to be made public today, will be called ''T-Party," to invoke both the partners' technology heritage and the revolutionary fervor unleashed by the Boston Tea Party. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's partnership with Quanta, one of its largest computing alliances ever with a single collaborator, is intended to reshape the field. Its logo is a desktop computer being tossed into the water.

''We're rethinking what computers are," said Rodney A. Brooks, director of MIT's Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab, known as CSAIL, which will run the project from the Stata Center, near Kendall Square in Cambridge.

While some T-Party technologies might find their way into commercial products before the project is completed in 2010, many of them will be geared to laying the foundation for a new era, when computer hardware recedes into the background and computing is all but invisible to the average person.

''An ultimate form would be for you to walk into a room and your biometrics would validate you and give you your data," Brooks said, referring to fingerprint or iris scanning that could enable the display of information on electronics-embedded surfaces or mobile devices.

The marriage of MIT's research expertise and Quanta's production prowess -- it's the world's largest maker of laptop computers -- is designed to eliminate the clunkiness of personal computers and the frustration of having to use devices that don't easily talk to each other, including cellphones, digital calendars, and hand-held computers. The goal is to make accessing data more intuitive, while addressing such tricky issues as information transfer, configurations, security, maintenance, backups, and upgrades.

In that sense, T-Party is the natural successor to CSAIL's Project Oxygen, now winding down. It pioneered ''human-centered computing" innovations, such as reconfigurable microchips and voice-activated software, in an effort to make computers as invisible to users as the air they breathe, in the vision of MIT's late Michael Dertouzos, the project's founder. CSAIL researchers have worked with six business partners on that $30 million project.

This time, MIT researchers will be paired with just one company. It looms large in the computer universe and is a titan of Asian business, but is virtually unknown in the United States. Quanta, which is projected to ring up annual sales of more than $12 billion this year, builds notebook and other computers and electronic devices that are sold worldwide under the brands of such companies as Dell, Apple, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard. It was a pioneer of the ''original design manufacturer" business model, in which Taiwanese companies design and produce computers and electronics for Western technology companies.

''Quanta is hugely significant in the industry, even though they don't build anything under their own brand," said Roger Kay, director of client computing for International Data Corp., a technology research firm in Framingham. He toured Quanta's production lines outside Taipei last fall. ''They're as efficient as they can get. They have refined their processes, and they do it as well, or better, than anyone."

In a phone interview, Quanta founder and chairman Barry Lam, who helped to popularize the concept of portable computers in the 1980s, said his company plans to open an office in Cambridge to work with MIT researchers.

''Over the coming five years, wireless computing will be anyplace, anytime, any medium," Lam said, suggesting that the machinery of computing could be confined to central offices, while access to information could be distributed widely to consumers and businesses. ''The personal computer can be a virtual device."

To kick off their T-Party initiative, MIT and Quanta plan an invitation-only conclave of the world's top computer scientists in Cambridge this summer to discuss new models of human-computer interaction. The first step, Lam said, would be to develop a vision. Then the partners will define the platforms -- the underpinnings of the new computing environment -- and come up with products. The intellectual property would be owned by MIT, but Quanta would have first rights to license T-Party technology.

Lam, however, said that Quanta has no plans to move toward branded products. He said the company would use the fruits of the research collaboration to build products for its business partners.

Initially, several dozen MIT researchers and graduate students, along with about a dozen undergraduates, will be working on T-Party. Quanta will also tap some members of its 3,000-person engineering force to work on the project in Taiwan and Cambridge.

Quanta's introduction to MIT came through its involvement in the Epoch Foundation, a consortium of technology-oriented Taiwanese firms that has had a relationship with MIT's Sloan School of Management for the past 13 years. In October, Lam spent half a day at CSAIL, meeting with Brooks and Victor Zue, the lab's co-director. Noting that many of his customers were scaling back on research and development, Lam asked them what the ''post-notebook computer era" would look like, they recalled.

''We have to plan for our future," Lam explained in the interview. ''We have to look for the new applications for our end-users. We hope that MIT can help us lead the research for the platform, and we will work with our technology partners to deliver the products."

That began a series of discussions that culminated with Brooks and Zue visiting Taipei and signing a research contract late last month. Zue said he envisions T-Party continuing a long tradition of influential MIT-created computing features, from the bitmap displays used in laptops to the Nu-bus architecture adopted by Apple for its Macintosh computers. Under the partnership, Zue said, he sees MIT researchers developing new gadgets, and Quanta engineers making prototypes.

''This will give us the ability to build cool machines, which will attract students to come here and do their research," Zue said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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