Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ubiquitous Computing

Ubiquitous computing has changed the way that we interact with computers, as they become an integral part of how we negotiate the world around us. This is a shift in the previous, more traditional, paradigm of our computer interaction. Computers are now embedded in most every aspect of our lives well beyond our use of desktop or laptop machines we use for work and recreation.

In Mark Weiser’s article, The Computer for the 21st Century, he states, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” As we move to smaller and more pervasive devices and integrated technologies, this statement has certainly been proven to be true, particularly where computers are concerned.

The Abowd-Mynatt article, Charting Past, Present, and Future Research in Ubiquitous Computing, references Weiser’s original project at Xerox PARC, and brings the ideas current and beyond. They note that Weiser’s vision included:

  • People and environments augmented with computational resources that provide information and services when and where desired, and that,
  • New applications would emerge and leverage off these devices and infrastructure.

They address three themes around ubiquitous computing: natural interfaces, contextual awareness, and the ability to automate the capture of live experiences and provide late access to those experiences. The dimensions of time and space play critical roles, as the goal of ubicomp must consider both environment and people. Time is another dimension that provides a challenge as the demand is for these systems to be available at all times.

Ubiquitous computing has become increasing more pervasive within the context of human daily life. It is no longer confined to the way we work, but is embedded in how we live, relate and communicate. The Internet provides a broad platform that is contextually rich in our current existence. It allows us to transcend time and space and connect and interact with one another in ways never possible before its inception. Information, even esoteric information, is available on demand via various search engines, which allows us to expand our knowledge base with immediacy. Social networking has changed the way we view human connections and made these connections more (or less) rich depending on one’s individual definition of “human connection.”

The desire for natural interfaces is becoming more of a reality as the use of metaphors is helping to drive design in that direction. The development of multi-touch devices, portability of technology, and on-demand computing also demonstrate the proliferation of computing technology that is designed to be integrated into daily life.

My concern, however, is at what cost to traditional, organic human development and cognition is this proliferation happening? What happens to us if the infrastructure fails? Is our reliance on technology dangerous to our ability to survive? At the very least, is our reliance on technology dangerous to our development?

Even in a time where much research is being conducted in the areas of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, they are both still artificial and have no organic basis as we do. In that sense, current technologies are still distinguishable from the fabric of our lives. Ubiquitous computing, therefore, in my mind, has value to us in terms of both simplifying and augmenting the human experience, but we should never become completely reliant on it because errors do occur. “In fact, it is endemic to the design of computer systems that attempt to mimic human abilities (Abowd-Mynatt, 34).”


Abowd, G. & Mynatt, E. (2000). Charting Past, Present, and Future Research in Ubiquitous Computing. ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(1), 29-58.

Weiser, M. (1991). The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American, 265(3), 94-104.

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