Project leader Roy Want of Intel Research showed a working prototype and explained the thinking behind it. "I worked on PDA technologies for ten years, and thought that when we got to something like the iPaq, we'd have utopia. But it doesn't work well for many tasks," he said.
The logic behind the Personal Server is that portable devices are no good for many purposes, because the screens and keyboards are either too small for working or too large for portability. Instead, says Want, it makes sense to carry your data around in a self-contained package and use whatever display and input devices are available wherever you find yourself.
The project, called Ubiquity, combines portable mass storage -- in this case, an IBM Microdrive -- and wireless interconnectivity, which for power reasons is currently Bluetooth. The unit is roughly the size of a packet of cigarettes, runs Linux and presents itself via a Web server, file sharing and streaming media interfaces.
By automatically finding and attaching by wireless to screens and keyboards available on cash machines, information kiosks, hotel rooms and so on, the Personal Server can provide a personal computing environment almost anywhere, without you having to carry much about, according to Want. "Displays and keyboards are becoming ubiquitous," he said.
Other applications he suggested: streaming your collection of audio or video to televisions and radios, automatically harvesting interesting information from access points you pass as you move around, and acting as attached data storage for whatever PCs and laptops are available.
Security and backup are two important problem areas, Want admitted. "When you walk up to a machine and access your Personal Server, you have to type a password into a computer you don't trust." One solution he suggested was for the Personal Server to display a selection of your pictures interspersed with others: access would only be granted if you correctly chose the ones you recognise. Backup could operate when you were back home, with the server synchronising to home storage automatically during fallow times such as overnight.
The Personal Server would be much more acceptable to people than other wearable computer ideas, because it would be invisible in normal use, he said. He suggested that the functionality would be suitable for building into mobile phones "if you don't like carrying another box around". Phones are already carried everywhere, he said, and could provide a basic interface into the device.
He also showed a wrist-mounted remote control that could relay button pushes and hand motions to the device, letting it work with public displays without their own keyboards.
We could expect to see Personal Servers in the next five to ten years, Want predicted, as low-power, high-capacity storage and wireless-networking technologies mature.