The To-Do List That Knows Where You Are

In the wired world of the 21st century, it seems impossible to forget anything. A cartoon pops up on your computer screen reminding you that it’s a friend’s birthday. An exclamation mark surfaces on your palmtop alerting you to a looming project deadline. Every once in a while your cellphone breaks into spasms of music to signal your next appointment.

And yet you forget — your reading glasses when you are rushing to work, your coat when you are going to the cleaners, your receipts when you are driving 30 miles to see your tax lawyer.

Such absent-mindedness may be frustrating to you, but to researchers and technology companies, it presents a potential market for memory aids, devices that will deliver reminders based not on calendar entries but where the user is at any given time. Unlike time-based alarms, like the ones used with a digital organizer or an e- mail program, these devices will sound off when you walk by the refrigerator, for example, or the file cabinet, reminding you of the frozen lunch or the printouts you need to carry to work.

To the scientists who are developing them, memory aids are much-needed appliances, the fruit of advances in computing that could improve the lives of many. But to critics, memory aids could well be an example of innovation driving need, an overkill of sensors and sophistication to do the work of Post-its.

Dr. Michael Beigl, a researcher at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, belongs to the former category. Dr. Beigl’s creation, the MemoClip, is a device equipped with a computer and a small electronic display that can be pinned onto the user’s shirt. As the user moves about the house or the office, the clip communicates with transmitters installed at places like a kitchen or a conference room, providing constant updates on the user’s whereabouts. The clip matches the user’s location with the list of tasks that the user wants to remember. All of the reminders and a database of locations must be entered in advance into a computer. MemoClip beeps when the user is near any location associated with a task. The text of the appropriate reminder is called up on the display.

Dr. Gloria Barczak, a Northeastern University marketing expert who studies innovation, finds it hard to imagine people wearing a computing device just to remind themselves to take the trash out. “The average consumer is more likely to make a list of things to do,” Dr. Barczak said. “I can think of niche markets, however, like people with big houses and a lot going on in their lives.”

Making a list of things to do is not the same as actually doing them — an observation that could be equally applicable to memory aids. Dr. Edward Tenner, author of “Why Things Bite Back” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) — about technology’s tendency to “recomplicate” life — fears that tracking and managing reminders delivered by electronic devices might simply be an added chore.


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