Era of obscurity coming to end for powerhouse lab


October 10, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

MORRISTOWN, N.J. -- George Washington set up headquarters here during one revolution. Today's scientists and engineers have bivouacked for another, and hope to fire some technological shots that will be heard around the world.

The encampment is part of Bellcore, a billion-dollar research powerhouse spun off from Bell Labs as part of the 1982 court decree that broke up AT&T. Though not as well-known as its former parent, it has emerged as one of the world's premier centers of telecommunications research and a key asset as the United States competes internationally.

Until now, Bellcore's work has been most visible to Bell Atlantic Corp. and the six other regional phone companies that own it. Much of its work has gone into technical refinements of the phone network, and the behind-the-scenes chores of setting industry standards and assigning phone numbers.

But Bellcore's obscurity may be ending. As the regional companies move into multimedia and interactive uses of the telephone network, Bellcore's technology will find its way into millions of homes, schools and offices around the nation -- even though the actual products and services won't bear its name.

By the end of 1994, residents of Alexandria, Va., should be able to order movies or old episodes of their favorite sitcoms, which will be piped through phone lines and into their televisions. This "video-on-demand" service will be based on a software standard developed by Bellcore.

Later this year, Baltimore will be the test site for a system that tracks a customer's location and routes calls to his home, office or car through a single phone number -- a system using switching technology developed at Bellcore.

And in a few years, when teen-agers play video games with friends across town, the software that makes it possible is likely to have been written by Bellcore scientists.

These and other breakthrough technologies are being developed researchers such as David Miller, part of the 6,800-employee Bellcore research network that is scattered among six locations through northern New Jersey.

In a crowded lab at Bellcore's Morristown research campus, Mr. Miller ticks off some faults of the phone system: You need to know where people are to call them; you don't know the importance of a call until you're committed to the conversation; only 12 percent of business calls get through to the right person on the first try; call forwarding can't discriminate between calls you want to take and those you don't.

And with electronic mail, phone calls, voice mail and fax coming in on separate systems, people just can't keep up. "There's too much information coming in for one person to assimilate," said the 25-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate.

To ease that information overload, Mr. Miller is working on the prototype of Bellcore's Electronic Receptionist, the result of a project started in 1988. It has evolved through 35 redesigns, and Mr. Miller says it's almost ready to be offered to Bellcore clients. He hopes to see it on the market within a year.

The system, in effect, is a smart receptionist who will work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It knows where you are all the time, but won't tell the wrong people.

Here's how it works when Mr. Miller is away from his office: The phone spots important calls -- by recognizing the caller's phone number -- and can forward them according to a pre-arranged schedule. Mr. Miller hears a short recorded message and decides whether to take the call, transfer it to a colleague or route it to voice mail.

And there's more. The system will route a caller's fax to a workstation, where Mr. Miller can call it up on his computer screen. Or he can pick up his E-mail from a portable unit -- the Electronic Receptionist will "read" it to him.

In a nearby office, Rob Fish is "cruising" some of his colleagues. Nobody minds -- the word has a different meaning at Bellcore than in most places.

Mr. Fish is project director for an experimental communications system called Cruiser, which he describes as the desktop video telephony of the future.

Cruiser tries to solve a simple problem in large, far-flung organizations: When other people are out of sight, they're often out of mind. With Cruiser, Mr. Fish can "drop in" on colleagues at other Bellcore facilities, at home offices or down the hall.

On his computer screen, he clicks a mouse on Steve Rohall's phone number, and his colleague's face appears in a small window on the screen, indicating that Mr. Rohall's electronic "door" is open. At the same time, Mr. Fish's image becomes visible on Mr. Rohall's screen. Seeing that Mr. Rohall is not busy, Mr. Fish hails him and they talk.

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