Ubiquitous Computing

smart dust by Becca Charlier-Matthews

Ubiquitous computing [yoo-bik-wi-tuhs] (ubicomp) is a post-desktop model of human-computer interaction in which information processing has been thoroughly integrated into everyday objects and activities. In the course of ordinary activities, someone ‘using’ ubiquitous computing engages many computational devices and systems simultaneously, and may not necessarily even be aware that they are doing so. This model is usually considered an advancement from the desktop paradigm. More formally ubiquitous computing is defined as ‘machines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs.’

Mark Weiser coined the phrase ‘ubiquitous computing’ around 1988, during his tenure as Chief Technologist of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Both alone and with PARC Director and Chief Scientist John Seely Brown, Weiser wrote some of the earliest papers on the subject, largely defining it and sketching out its major concerns. Recognizing that the extension of processing power into everyday scenarios would necessitate understandings of social, cultural and psychological phenomena beyond its proper ambit, Weiser was influenced by many fields outside computer science, including ‘philosophy, phenomenology, anthropology, psychology, post-Modernism, sociology of science and feminist criticism.’ He was explicit about ‘the humanistic origins of the ‘invisible ideal in post-modernist thought,” referencing as well the ironically dystopian Philip K. Dick novel ‘Ubik.’

This paradigm is also described as pervasive computing and ambient intelligence, where each term emphasizes slightly different aspects. When primarily concerning the objects involved, it is also physical computing, the Internet of Things, haptic computing, and things that think. Rather than propose a single definition for ubiquitous computing and for these related terms, a taxonomy of properties for ubiquitous computing has been proposed, from which different kinds or flavors of ubiquitous systems and applications can be described.

At their core, all models of ubiquitous computing share a vision of small, inexpensive, robust networked processing devices, distributed at all scales throughout everyday life and generally turned to distinctly common-place ends. For example, a domestic ubiquitous computing environment might interconnect lighting and environmental controls with personal biometric monitors woven into clothing so that illumination and heating conditions in a room might be modulated, continuously and imperceptibly. Another common scenario posits refrigerators ‘aware’ of their suitably tagged contents, able to both plan a variety of menus from the food actually on hand, and warn users of stale or spoiled food.

Ubiquitous computing presents challenges across computer science: in systems design and engineering, in systems modelling, and in user interface design. Contemporary human-computer interaction models, whether command-line, menu-driven, or GUI-based, are inappropriate and inadequate to the ubiquitous case. This suggests that the ‘natural’ interaction paradigm appropriate to a fully robust ubiquitous computing has yet to emerge – although there is also recognition in the field that in many ways we are already living in an ubicomp world. Contemporary devices that lend some support to this latter idea include mobile phones, digital audio players, radio-frequency identification tags, GPS, and interactive whiteboards.

Mark Weiser proposed three basic forms for ubiquitous system devices: Tabs (wearable centimeter sized devices); Pads (hand-held decimeter-sized devices); and Boards (meter sized interactive display devices). These three forms proposed by Weiser are characterized by being macro-sized, having a planar form and on incorporating visual output displays. If we relax each of these three characteristics we can expand this range into a much more diverse and potentially more useful range of Ubiquitous Computing devices.

Hence, three additional forms for ubiquitous systems have been proposed: Dust (miniaturized devices without visual output displays, ranging from nanometers through micrometers to millimeters); Skin (fabrics based upon light emitting and conductive polymers, organic computer devices, can be formed into more flexible non-planar display surfaces and products such as clothes and curtains – microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, can also be painted onto various surfaces so that a variety of physical world structures can act as networked surfaces); and Clay (ensembles of MEMS can be formed into arbitrary three dimensional shapes as artifacts resembling many different kinds of physical object).

In his book ‘The Rise of the Network Society,’ Manuel Castells suggests that there is an ongoing shift from already-decentralized, stand-alone microcomputers and mainframes towards entirely pervasive computing. In his model of a pervasive computing system, Castells uses the example of the Internet as the start of a pervasive computing system. The logical progression from that paradigm is a system where that networking logic becomes applicable in every realm of daily activity, in every location and every context. Castells envisages a system where billions of miniature, ubiquitous inter-communication devices will be spread worldwide, ‘like pigment in the wall paint.’


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