The incredible shrinking computer is at it again.
Vaughan Pratt has created the world's smallest web server, a matchbox-sized device that is small enough to fit into a shirt pocket.
Using off-the-shelf components, the Stanford professor of computer science has squeezed the hardware and software needed to operate a web site into a package about one-tenth the volume of a Palm Pilot™, the current standard in handheld electronic organizers. The tiny device is less than 1 3/4 inches high, 2 3/4 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick and performs all the basic functions of a typical desktop computer that occupies 3,000 times the space.
"It's basically a powerful little computer," Pratt says. "We could have set it up for a number of different uses. But, because most people think of servers as mysterious boxes, located in dark basements and cranking out stuff for everyone to see, I thought making it into a web server was particularly dramatic."
Equally remarkable, Pratt assembled his matchbook computer from off-the-shelf components. Other than a power supply, the tiny server is complete. In tech terms, it consists of an AMD 486-SX computer with a 66 megahertz central processing unit, 16 megabytes of random access memory (RAM), and 16 megabytes of flash read-only memory (ROM). It is connected to the Internet through a parallel port and runs a cut-down version of Linux, a popular version of the Unix operating system. Because the machine is a web server, it does not need a keyboard or a display. It can be operated from another computer over the web connection.
After putting the matchbox server online on Friday, Jan. 22, Pratt notified fellow members of a small computer news group. From there, news of the tiny server spread rapidly. By Sunday, the site had received more than 5,000 visitors. In the following five days it had racked up another 78,000 hits. The server's web page contains a picture of computer posed alongside a collectible Russian matchbox. It also contains a detailed description of the tiny computer and gives instructions on how computer hobbyists can build the server themselves.
The previous title for world's smallest web server was held by Phar Lap Software, using a custom computer that is 3.6 inches by 3.8 inches by 1 inch in size (more than 10 times the size of the matchbox server). The Phar Lap server provides up-to-date local weather data for Cambridge, Mass. According to the company, its purpose is to demonstrate the possibilities for putting "embedded systems" on the World Wide Web. Embedded systems are special-purpose computers "embedded" in all sorts of electronic systems, ranging from ovens, refrigerators and elevators to medical instruments and factory robots.
By contrast, the new Stanford web server is one of the first projects of a new Wearables Lab that Pratt has started. The lab is modeled after an older and larger program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both labs are developing computer technology that can be incorporated directly into clothing.
"Put this computer into your shirt pocket, hook it to a wireless modem, and you could carry it around with you," Pratt says.
A person "wearing" such a computer can see what it is doing by donning and plugging in a special kind of glasses that doubles as a computer display. Such glasses are sold by several companies.
Right now, the biggest obstacle to producing a truly wearable computer is the lack of a compact method for inputting data. Pratt and doctoral student Greg Defouw are working on a special glove that can recognize a digital sign language, called Thumbcode, that they have developed to replace the bulky keyboard. And future versions of the matchbox computer should be powerful enough to run voice recognition software, Pratt says.
The Wearables group is already working on a more powerful server, one based on an Intel Pentium chipset. They intend to combine a credit-card-size Pentium motherboard that Cell Computing introduced last fall with a new 340 megabyte hard drive from IBM that is a fraction of an inch thick and less than 2 inches on a side.
"Such a system will be powerful enough to run the complete Windows operating system and one of the voice-recognition programs currently on the market," Pratt says.
Matchbox web server -- http://wearables.stanford.edu
Background on Thumbcode -- http://boole.stanford.edu/thumbcode
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