PodSmart, MP3 Technology to Deal With Information Overload

New technology from IBM will enable you to listen to your e-mail, appointments and news feeds from your MP3 player or iPod. Cool. But the PodSmart software was finished in 12 weeks, by college students. Now that's the way to run a summer internship program!

Being stuck in traffic on the way to work is bad enough. But the worst part may be the nerve-wracking feeling of wasted time. Surely, your time could be better spent catching up on e-mail, news and articles. Thanks to a few IBM college interns, help is on the way.

PodSmart is new technology from IBM that allows you to have your work and personal e-mail, calendar appointments and news feeds read aloud on any MP3 player, including an iPod. You can customize playlists, so, for example, PodSmart reads your most important e-mails, your urgent appointments and your favorite news sources. You can even listen to music.

And it was created by college kids.

Although the product is not yet to market, PodSmart has been demonstrated at several conferences. It is generating an excited interest from executives, a user group that's motivated to manage countless e-mail messages and to stay abreast of relevant information.

The technology was developed by interns in the Extreme Blue program, IBM's most competitive internship, which has a dozen locations throughout the world. The 12-week program, led by IBM mentors, charges software development and MBA students with developing the technology and business plan for a new product or service that addresses an existing market challenge outlined by the company. PodSmart is the brainchild of last year's interns at the IBM Extreme Blue lab in Dublin, Ireland.

The application was created with a younger generation in mind, but executive interest is eclipsing that of other groups, says Michael Roche, IBM's lead developer for PodSmart and mentor on the project. "Since [business executives] are dealing with information overload, I think a lot of them see this as a way to process more information." PodSmart may help executives prepare or catch up during downtime commutes and workouts.

In many companies, college interns are relegated to the role of IT janitorial work, doing the stuff that no one else wants to take on. Instead, IBM takes a more open approach, to encourage innovation among these best-and-brightest students. This IBM internship program gives great freedom to do actual work. "Idea-generation and innovation can happen at all levels of an organization," says Brian O'Gorman, software development engineer at IBM Lotus, who also mentored the students. "Any idea, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant, could be the spark that starts a major new innovation."

The Dublin intern team was charged with creating personal audio radio programming from text sources, including e-mail, calendar, news-feed, online articles and e-learning programs. Students were given laptops, assigned a business mentor and a technical mentor, and encouraged to contact any of the 350,000 IBM employees throughout the world, as well as people in other industries. In short, the students were encouraged to collaborate with anyone who seemed appropriate.

During the 12-week-long program, interns participated in regular brainstorming sessions, shared ideas with IBM scientists, conducted market and customer analysis, and attended regular status meetings with mentors. Senior management were given weekly presentations of progress.

Perhaps most important, the students were given freedom to move boundaries. "From the day they start they are encouraged to challenge ideas, come up with ideas; many times they reinvent projects," says Roche. "We've had some fantastic results."

"One aspect of the internship program is the fact that the projects are not defined in detail," says O'Gorman. "The students are given an idea and the freedom to do what they wish with that idea. The lack of clearly defined end points gives the students and mentors great scope for investigating new possibilities and ideas, and thus encourages innovation." In the first few weeks of the internship, students do a lot of research, connect with others and build on existing work. "Rather than starting from scratch, we say, 'Look around IBM, talk to people at IBM. Can you use existing components and build upon that?' so rather than starting from the beginning, they can concentrate on linked value," says Roche. That students talk with people in other industries has great benefit for IBM itself. "From IBM's point of view, we get to work with new partners and with people in industries we wouldn't have before," says Roche. "And just bringing together the various people from all these [partners] really helps foster innovation."

Indeed, the innovations that result from Extreme Blue projects rely heavily on teamwork and soft skills. "The nature of our project (and Extreme Blue in general) requires extensive collaboration between the technical students, business students, mentors and Extreme Blue alumni," says Edward Mackle, who was an intern on the PodSmart team and is now a Global Web Architecture Consultant at IBM Global Services. It's not easy getting four people who have never met to face many challenges along the way to developing a new product, he says. "You have to work as a team if the project is going to be a success, and that is a key reason for the success of PodSmart."

In response to the challenge of creating personal programming, the interns generated an application that's built on Lotus Notes 8 (which is built on the IBM-developed and open-source Eclipse Java platform). The interns created a framework to connect different data sources and worked with a third party to translate text into audio.

Most text-to-audio solutions are fairly robotic, and therefore unfriendly for extended listening, says Roche. Typical text-to-audio solutions are based on phonetic reading; the voice program breaks words into their phonemes and strings together sounds to make words, with no sense of meaning or emphasis. So the interns looked for a solution that sounds more natural. They had actors come to a studio to read 60,000 to 80,000 words, which are then configured according to the text. Because the words sounded far more natural, the team found during testing, people were much more likely to listen to the whole program.

Listeners have a choice of male or female voices (which can be switched for different segments of the program), and can have the text read in English (with different accents), German or Spanish.

Roche says that IBM didn't initially outline the project as one that uses music, "but students said not having music is a crazy gap." The student team changed the project at the beginning. "What they ended up creating is a system that could be configured such that, my commute is this long, [so] I want 10 minutes of news feeds, 10 e-mail, then the rest can be music or whatever else they want," says Roche.

Roche points out that innovation and synergy are sparked by the diversity in technological interest and expertise and business savvy among the students, and the mentors benefit from that. "We learn a lot every year," he says. "Every year there's a wider range of technology and solutions." He also notices the variations in students' ease of using the technology from year to year. This year's interns have an even greater exposure to Web 2.0 tools than last year's students, Roche says. "They have business cards; some are just [in their] third year in college, and they're already building business profiles for themselves on Web."

As for the Extreme Blue program itself, Roche believes the program has multiple benefits. Projects can result in products with important social value, such as algorithms for gene pattern matching to spot disease indicators. This year's project is to create in-home monitoring systems to verify that elderly patients are OK and moving about.

And, of course, the internship program gives students a (likely) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create and innovate with as few barriers as possible. Then there's the innovation aspect of the program itself. "Several projects I've been involved with over the last five years would never have arisen from normal demands," says Roche.

Roche counts his participation in Extreme Blue as one of his most rewarding IBM experiences. "It gives the interns an opportunity to work with the massive knowledge base that is IBM," he says, "and it allows us to span generations and inject and build upon fresh thinking from the digital natives."

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