Andy Hopper: location systems

Andy Hopper discusses inventing the first computerised location system at Olivetti Labs in Cambridge c.1990.

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We, Olivetti Research, had moved from rather small premises, which were the old Acorn CPU premises actually, in the centre of Cambridge. These were all small rooms, people could see each other, it was for a small organisation, very tight. Tight, meaning not just physically tight, operationally tight. There wasn’t a communication barrier ‘cause everybody could hear everybody else. And then we grew. So we, Olivetti, moved to spacious accommodation, and these were large premises on three floors. So you could no longer hear everybody else. And so I had a research engineer called Roy Want start, and he said ‘What shall I do?’ And we were sitting in this big office, but we were feeling very lost. So I said, ‘Well why don’t you design a system which tells us where everybody is, ‘cause I can’t find anybody, we’re rattling around here somewhat.’ On a whim, I wasn’t being serious, or at least I don’t know what I was being, but it wasn’t like, ‘This is your instruction,’ this is casual, sort of 'what can I think of just now?' Well he did it. So he came up with a tag system, an active badge system, where you wore an active badge, in other words a badge which had computers in it, and it would tell you which room you were in. The you being anybody else who wanted to look. I had just done my first trans Atlantic flight in my aeroplane, and I had one of the very early GPS units. And I thought, you’re bloody good, this stuff, I like this, I can fly in Greenland. It’s great. So I got turned on by the location business. But we did the first location system, so you could walk up to a printer and the printing would come out where you’d walk up to. You could control phone calls, route them to where you are rather than – that’s before mobiles. We presented where everybody is in various aggregates, so you could tell if there’s a meeting or if somebody’s in a corridor, or if they haven’t been seen for a few hours, so that you get some contextual information from the screen. So if you call somebody, you never call them and say, ‘Is Fred there?’ because it was obvious whether Fred was there because you’d only ever call where they are there, or in particular you wouldn’t call when they’re not there. Erm, and then we linked it up with a video, and so you could video conference, and, based on where you are, and all this sort of stuff. You could have follow me videos, as you walked from one office to the other it would replug it to the new box. All this sort of wonderful stuff, very, very early. Plus all the Big Brother, plus all the, you know, the, ‘We’re doomed, the end is nigh, Big Brother is you incarnate, I hate you.’ Great stuff. Well there were three levels of concern. Within the company, with the lab, the Olivetti lab, there was a, ‘Do we really have to?’ I said, ‘Well, give it a whirl.’ We did it. We did, and after two weeks everybody was hooked. Benign environment, plus enthusiasm ‘cause it’s us, and then the utility of it completely outweighs anything like that in a benign environment. If you never have to call anybody who is not there, you like that. [Laughs] You don’t care why they’re not there, that’s the benign bit. You’re not policing them, you’re just saving your hassle. Oh love it, right, love it. So it actually makes it easier to nip out for a cup of tea at a cafe rather than harder, because it’s obvious to everybody that you’ve nipped out. They don’t care why, they just see that you walked out of the building seven minutes ago, therefore there’s no point trying to find you in the building.

  • Interviewee Andy Hopper
  • Duration 00:03:51
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 6/3/2010
  • Shelfmark C1379/10

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