RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Mondays our business report focuses on technology. Today, cell phones, to ring or not to ring?

We've all had these moments in movie theaters or in a meeting, when we hear the annoying ring of a phone and suddenly realize to our horror that it's our own phone.

Some engineers are trying to solve this problem. They're developing polite cell phones that can tell when to keep quiet and when it's okay to interrupt.

NPR's Nell Boyce reports.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Larry Marturano doesn't want his cell phone to ring when he's sitting in church. Luckily, he can program his phone to turn its ringer off at certain times of the day. He's told it to always be respectfully silent on Sunday mornings.

Mr. LARRY MARTURANO (Engineer, Motorola): But occasionally I'm not at church on Sunday morning, and so I'm somewhere else on Sunday morning and my wife tries to get a hold of me or my son calls me, and lo and behold, the cell phone doesn't ring, because I told it not to.

I remember thinking, Boy, that's really annoying, I wish it was smarter than that. And then the next thought I had was, Oh yeah, that's my job, I'm working on that.

BOYCE: Marturano is an engineer. He runs a lab for Motorola near Chicago, and he has a vision of how in the future cell phones will be smarter.

Mr. MARTURANO: As I use the phone, day after day, it learns what I like to do, it learns in what situations I answer calls. And so, over time, the vision is that the cell phone gets easier to use, because it only presents options to me that I'm likely to use.

BOYCE: For that to happen, phones will have to know what you're doing all of the time. Many phones already have GPS chips that know your location, and more sensors are on the way.

Marturano says his company has one prototype that constantly checks in with your car's computer to see what's going on.

Mr. MARTURANO: It knows how fast it's going, it knows how fast it's braking, it knows whether it's turning or not.

BOYCE: So if the car tells the phone that you're slamming on the brakes, you won't get interrupted by a call from your son's little league coach.

There's a similar experiment under way at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. This time, instead of getting advice from a car, the phone relies on a wristwatch.

The eWatch looks like a big, geeky digital watch, but it also has sensors. One of them measures light to see if you're in a dark room or watching TV. Dan Siewiorek, who helped design the watch, says that kind of sensor is perfect on your wrist, but not on the phone itself.

Mr. DAN SIEWIOREK (eWatch Designer): If I put it on my cell phone, the light sensor will be in my pocket and wouldn't do me much good, where the wrist is out there and it's also one of the more active parts of your body.

BOYCE: The eWatch's motion sensor can tell if you're typing on a keyboard and a microphone listens in to see if you're having a conversation.

Siewiorek says the eWatch is surprisingly good at recognizing familiar activities, and they're working on software that will let a phone learn what's the polite thing to do in each situation.

Mr. SIEWIOREK: The system can say I've been here before, I've seen it. And then it can watch what you do in that space. Like if you get a cell phone call and you turn the cell phone off, then the system can start associating, well, this may be a space that you don't want to take cell phone calls.

BOYCE: The trouble is, there's always an exception. Maybe you hate to take calls at the gym, but then one day your daughter tries to call from the emergency room.

So another option is to have the caller make the decision. The phone would answer and say something like this.

CELL PHONE VOICE: John is in his boss's office and they're talking. Do you want to interrupt?

BOYCE: Kay Connelly, at Indiana University in Bloomington, is studying how much privacy people are willing to give up. In experiments, she had people walk around with a little device. It would ring and present a scenario. For example: Your sister is calling. People would then tell the pretend phone what kind of information it should give the caller.

Ms. KAY CONNELLY (Indiana University): They tended to release as much as possible. But at the same time, they didn't want everyone to know everything. Most people are willing to release information to their work colleagues and their bosses during the work day, but not after hours. Spouses and friends and family were given a lot of information. Spouses were given the most.

BOYCE: That openness is what intrigues Larry Marturano at Motorola. His dream is to develop a cell phone that would help people stay emotionally connected with their loved ones.

Mr. MARTURANO: If I could just know if kids are safe, or if I could just know that my wife is thinking about me, or if I could just know that, you know, my parents are okay today, that would be a really cool application that I would just love to have on my cell phone.

BOYCE: But that's a long way away. For now, Marturano would just be happy to have a phone that knows whether or not to bug him on Sunday morning.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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