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CalIt2 monitors future horizon for newest technologies

Back in 2000 when California was flush with money, then-Governor Gray Davis directed hundreds of millions of dollars to create four institutes of innovation. One became the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Techonology, or CalIt2.

It's headed up by internet pioneer Larry Smarr. He calls CalIt2 a kind of radar system monitoring the future's horizon for the newest technologies. KPBS reporter Beth Ford Roth has the story.

Larry Smarr likes to think of CalIt2's futuristic glass and metal building on the UC San Diego campus, as a time machine.

Smarr: I grew up listening to Walt Disney and Tomorrowland and things like that in the 50s and early 60s, and I was always sort of a little disappointed went I went to Tomorrowland, cause it really didn't work for real, well here, this is like Tomorrowland that really works.

It's kind of difficult to sum up exactly what CalI2 is. It may best be described as a group of scientists and artists who like coming up with cutting edge ideas and testing them out, without the publish or perish pressure of academia or working for profit-driven companies.

Smarr says the institute helps make theories into reality, that aim to address the problems facing California in areas like medicine, transportation and the environment.

Smarr: So we got specialists in all these sub-areas that will continuously be looking for opportunities to essentially live in the future, to develop large scale integrated systems of information technology and telecom based activities that will make it possible to do things we can't do today.

Smarr says for example, the institute helps under-funded law enforcement agencies with some of its inventions. CalIt2 staff, and the UCSD students who work with them, are creating wireless technologies that would assist police officers and paramedics in the event of a natural or manmade disaster.

Smarr: So we have worked with the medical school to find ways in which we can have low cost monitors that, say, clip on your fingers and measure your blood pressure and your pulse and your oxygen and then wirelessly transmit that because if you've got hundreds of people who've been injured, you've got to be tracking them all in real time, so you can prioritize which person needs to be helped next.

Smarr says staff researchers got to try out these monitors at a recent disaster drill at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. That's the cornerstone of CalIt2. Ideas created there get tested out in the real world.

CalIt2 has also created innovations that can be used everyday.

Staff researcher Ganz Chockalingam invented a personalized traffic notification system. Drivers can use the phone or internet to find out the speed of traffic on their commute.

Chockalingam: So no longer are people dependent on the radio and TV, so next time you hear the congestion on the highway, you're always wondering should I jump off, or will it clear up in two exits, you can call, this will tell you.

Even more, drivers can program in their commutes by phone or internet, and the system will call their cell phones or send e-mail letting them know the best time to head home that day.

Chockalingam is one of about 900 staff members at CalIt2. The building they work in is unique, and not just on the outside. The interior is bright and open, without cubicles or divisions to help foster creative communication.

Ramesh Rao is head of the UCSD division of CalIt2. As he gives a tour of the building, he points out that everyone sits in the middle. The areas on the periphery which have spectacular views are actually the shared spaces.

Rao: These are the best locations on every floor what might have been the corner office has been turned into public space, you know, we have some very distinguished occupants in this building, but everybody has a standard office and these spots remain open to gather, you don't have to have a reason to be here, just drop in, listen to people.

All the chairs, tables, and desks are on wheels, so everything can be moved around to allow for impromptu discussion and brainstorming. There is space set aside on each floor for yoga three times a week. There's no area in the interior where sunlight doesn't reach. In fact, there are several outside studies going on to see if the building's unique environment improves worker productivity.

After all, this building is supposed to be a time machine. When Larry Smarr is asked what he thinks what the future will be like for California, he says his staff is already working on it.

Smarr: You know almost everything that's going to be in widespread use ten years from now already exists, and so what we try to do is to be working with the technologies at CalIt2 that in ten years will be mass markets.

Smarr likes to quote science fiction writer William Gibson when he says the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed. But Calit2 just may change that.

For the California Report, I'm Beth Ford Roth in San Diego.

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