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Man's best friend

Chad Barraford loves his dog, Miles. But Project Jarvis — the digital assistant that greets him, tracks his Netflix, and cooks hot dogs — has become indispensable.

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / April 6, 2010

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BROOKLINE — To be honest, the apartment is pretty ordinary looking. Chad Barraford, 27, a tech support worker, pays $1,175 a month for his one-bedroom unit near Coolidge Corner. The kitchen is tiny, the living space cramped.

It’s when Barraford opens his front door and swipes a radio frequency identification tag through a scanner linked to his home computer that extraordinary things happen.

“Welcome home, Chad,’’ says a voice coming from a wall speaker. “You’ve been away for 1 hour and 15 minutes.’’

Time and temperature are announced. Bedroom lights blink on. Barraford’s dog, Miles, is greeted, too. By name.

“Jarvis?’’ Barraford says.

“Yes, sir.’’

“Turn on the desk light. Execute.’’

Seconds later, the desk light glows. Barraford, thinking he might watch a movie later, wants to know which Netflix selections he has. “Four, sir,’’ replies Jarvis, reading off each title.

Clearly, Jarvis is one handy fellow to have around. Not just a figment but a product of Barraford’s rich imagination, Jarvis is a nexus of online resources, customized and accessed to fit Barraford’s personal needs. A “digital life assistant,’’ or DLA, as Barraford calls his creation, programmed to give updates on everything from FedEx shipments to Facebook postings, CNN breaking news to the groceries in the pantry.

When Barraford, who drew his inspiration from the movie “Iron Man,’’ is away, he communicates with Jarvis by means of Twitter and text messaging. When he is home, Barraford controls how much information he receives, digitally or verbally, depending on who’s within earshot. Jarvis knows when Barraford’s dog, Miles, is inside or out for a walk. He also recognizes Barraford’s close friend, Meghan Templehof, when she’s on the premises.

There are many manufacturers and service companies trading in “smart home’’ technology, systems that enable clients to control functions like heat, lighting, home security, and entertainment systems with a kitchen keypad or iPhone app. In what is being projected as a nearly $3 billion industry within two years, some of these companies charge thousands of dollars for their products and services.

Intelligent computers that perform human-like tasks, or even embody human emotions, have likewise been a pop-culture staple for decades, from the works of sci-fi masters like Isaac Asimov to movies (“2001: A Space Odyssey’’) and TV (“Battlestar Galactica’’) in which computers rule, benevolently or otherwise. In the 21st century, that’s not quite as fantastic as it once seemed. And in its own small way, Jarvis could be a harbinger of DLAs to come, a low-cost, homemade answer to the question: How can my personal computer best serve my personal needs?

Compared with much of what’s marketed as “smart home’’ technology, Jarvis is both a marvel and a bargain. He runs on a 4-year-old Mac Mini computer with built-in speech recognition — and virtually no additional bells and whistles. Barraford has calculated, down to the penny, how much he has spent on a DLA that does everything but brush his teeth. To date, the figure stands at $691.98. That includes wall speakers and an xTag wireless microphone.

“I’m not a big fan of most of those technologies anyway. They’re overly expensive and clumsy to use,’’ says Barraford, a soft-spoken, earnest young man with the physique of a champion distance runner, which he was back in high school. “I’m not into parlor tricks, either. Stuff that looks cool but really isn’t very useful.’’ What he most wanted to design into Jarvis, he says, “wasn’t just home automation but life integration.’’

Among the more striking examples of life integration is when Barraford contracts a migraine headache, sending Jarvis into Migraine Mode, turning him into a combination of nurse practitioner and administrative assistant. By texting Jarvis on the way home as his own head begins to pound and his vision blurs, Barraford knows that e-mails will be sent to his boss and to Templehof, that a migraine alert will be posted on his Facebook page, and that his apartment lights will be dimmed before he staggers home and crawls into bed.

Jarvis even cooks for Barraford. OK, maybe not a veggie omelet from scratch, but hooked up to a George Foreman Grill in Barraford’s kitchen, Jarvis can turn out a perfectly edible hot dog. Most “smart’’ systems wouldn’t dare try this at home.

Though he’s no programming wizard, says Barraford, he knows what information he needs in his daily life and how Jarvis can best help him get it. When people see what Jarvis is capable of, either by coming to the apartment or by viewing one of the YouTube videos posted on his website (www.projectjarvis.com), they all have one question: How can I get one of these, too?

“Some day I may make money off this, but that’s not my goal now,’’ Barraford says. Other hobbyists with similar interests have reached him through YouTube and Facebook, “but I don’t think anyone’s taken this to the same degree. I’m willing to share my general concept with them, but I’m not sharing code. At least not yet.’’

What began as a fun challenge — seeing how much useful information his Mac could keep him abreast of — turned into something more ambitious, says Barraford. Jarvis now saves him time, by retrieving data automatically he once hunted down himself, and money, by controlling his apartment lights and appliances more energy-efficiently.

Barraford, who grew up in Lynnfield and graduated from UMass-Dartmouth with a psychology degree, is mostly self-taught when it comes to the cyber world. Growing up, he enjoyed taking apart old computers, buying his first PC when he was in 10th grade. But he never used Apple products until college and didn’t own a Mac until he was sent to Apple Co. headquarters to train for his first real job, working for the Burlington Apple store.

The idea of building a Jarvis prototype — basically, an alarm clock that would wake him up with news bulletins and weather information — intrigued him yet seemed impractical. Then, about a year ago, he saw “Iron Man,’’ which features a highly intelligent home computer system named JARVIS, an acronym for Just a Rather Very Intelligent System.

“I loved the movie and started thinking, maybe I can’t do a full Jarvis, but I can do this piece of it. Or that piece,’’ he recalls. “What if my apartment had its own Twitter account and could tweet me? The ideas just kept coming to me. Pop pop pop.’’

So far, Barraford has devised eight different ways of communicating with Jarvis, including tweeting, instant messaging, and speech recognition, one of his latest upgrades.

There are things Jarvis cannot do: move money around in Barraford’s bank account; order items with a credit card; lock Barraford out of his apartment, inadvertently or otherwise. On the other hand, Jarvis is equipped with eyes as well as ears. A wall-mounted webcam allows Barraford to monitor his apartment’s interior. One day, a maintenance man came by and started yelling at Miles. It was all Barraford could do to refrain from having Jarvis say, “Stop yelling at my dog!’’

For Barraford, being able to interact with Jarvis in a human-like way is not only more fun than tapping on a keyboard, it’s more efficient, too. Human speech is about as streamlined as communication gets, he points out. The more he can program Jarvis to do for him, the more interactive Jarvis becomes. “I love feeling he’s there helping me,’’ says Barraford, “and not just some program running in the background.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.