January 11, 2006 11:41 AM   Subscribe

In the early 1990s Mark Weiser at Xerox PARC coined the term ubiquitous computing or "ubicomp" to describe the way he thought computing ought to look in the post-PC era: computers would be invisible, "in the woodwork everywhere around us." Ubicomp has been discussed here a few times before (in fact a MeFite went on to write a book about it)...but with a flood of manufacturers racing to offer up their versions of the so-called digital home, is Weiser's vision moving closer to reality?
posted by Shanachie (23 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by Possum at 11:59 AM on January 11, 2006

To expound a bit ...

USA Today's tech page has a column today on the Consumer Electronics Show. The headline: "Despite tech hype, lack of compatibility a problem."

Check it out.
posted by Possum at 12:05 PM on January 11, 2006

In some respects I am kind of glad that we don't have it since within the first 6 months of having it the inbuilt computer in my toaster will be screaming at me through it's microphone that I should "Eat wholemeal bread or die early" and things of that nature. It sure is a nifty idea but in reality it will be just another part of our lives that is rapidly overtaken by advertising.

That, my friend, can quite frankly go to bollocks.
posted by longbaugh at 12:13 PM on January 11, 2006

Virtual reality UIs! CD-Rom encyclopedias! Ah... the 90s...
posted by Artw at 12:17 PM on January 11, 2006

Besides the technical incompatibilities that are still rampant, the average consumer just won't go for this, and doesn't need it. The techies can cook it up, but there just won't be a market for most of it.

The Economist link describes "a video that presented his company's version of this vision. In the clip, a youngish man wakes up to a rock video that automatically starts playing on a screen next to his bed. He gets up to have breakfast and the rock video follows him to a screen in the kitchen. He moves into the living room and up pops the rock video on yet another screen. When he leaves his flat and gets into his car, the video starts playing on a screen in the steering wheel."

Does anybody actually want or need this? (Not even dealing with mention the silliness of video in the steering wheel.) It is a simple process, right now, to play audiio or video wherever you have it installed, to turn it on or off as you move around, or to carry it around with you in an iPod. With the system described, I have to to programming, as opposed to on-off knobs, to deal with background sound or images. I'm not doing that, and neither will most people.

Automation of background processes like heating, cooling, lighting is a possible application. But I can turn on my own entertainment units, thank you very much, and my refrigerator does not have to tell my Palm Pilot, or a video screen in my eyeglasses, that I need to pick up milk on the way home.
posted by beagle at 12:25 PM on January 11, 2006

Yeah, the idea of using this sort of technology as a means for advertising would be a nightmare. Can you imagine constantly having to turn off your microwave as Mrs. Paul's Fish ads keep popping up?
posted by Shanachie at 12:34 PM on January 11, 2006

I got news for you all: it became reality a long time ago. You all might be surprised by just how many computers (mostly single-chip microprocessors embedded in ASICs) surround you in your everyday lives right now, because most of them are designed to be invisible. (I used to work in that field.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:38 PM on January 11, 2006

I'm not sure a few embedded controllers that don't talk to each other really counts.
posted by Artw at 12:43 PM on January 11, 2006

Eh. It's not really here until I can ask my closet door where my socks are, or I can check my email on the clock in the bathroom, or until public transport has data terminals at every stop to display real time bus locations and system maps, or until they start embedding whole computers - operating system, UI, I/O, mass storage and all - in single sheets of paper.

For truly ubiquitous computing I surmise were going to need strong AI to co-ordinate and handle the majority of the interfacing and info management for us, and/or better interfaces to technology, direct neural links being foremost.

Better communication and compatibility between individual devices from the complete spectrum of manufacturers would be, of course, a given.
posted by loquacious at 12:47 PM on January 11, 2006

Not sure I agree with longbaugh, My toaster already screams at me most nights, except when it’s drowned out by a hauntingly beautiful, full-reverb, Dolby-enhanced cover of the audio phone signal for loss of line feed. However, I’m more disturbed by the premonition that ubiquitous runs both ways. As soon as I have the world at my digital door, everybody in the world (Why, even the CIA!) can peek inside and know every move I make; every call I make; every cake I bake.

With ubiquitous video cameras already found in increasingly more and more public spaces, it’s just a baby step down the slippery slope of that “less traveled path” until we accept “invisible” surveillance of our digital lives “without even thinking about it.”

BTW, I think that’s not a good thing, not to mention, it doesn’t make us feel one bit safer.
posted by weepingsore at 12:48 PM on January 11, 2006

Ditto Artw: Or even more than a few. I can count a couple of dozen devices with microprocessors in my house, but none of them can or do talk to each other.
posted by beagle at 12:54 PM on January 11, 2006

You're soaking in it!
posted by HTuttle at 1:01 PM on January 11, 2006

Can we get a moratorium declared on FPPs ending with a question?
posted by knave at 1:18 PM on January 11, 2006

No. But ask on MeTa if you like.
posted by beagle at 1:27 PM on January 11, 2006


What I think people see as "ubiquitous computing": being able to turn to the nearest device, what ever it is, and ask a relevant question. For example, asking the fridge "how much milk will I need for the next week?", or asking the dryer "where the hell did those socks I put in last night go?". Or even asking the toaster "do I have enough bread in the fridge for 2 slices?"

What I think the industry sees as "ubiquitous computing": being able to force-feed you crap all day long, and charge you for it. As in the example given above of the rock video that follows you around ("Only $19.95 a month for the latest top-10 videos each week! That's less than a dollar a day!"). We're already there with god-damned ringtones...
posted by Pinback at 2:37 PM on January 11, 2006

What I think the industry sees as "ubiquitous computing": being able to force-feed you crap all day long, and charge you for it.
We have a winner!
posted by Thorzdad at 2:42 PM on January 11, 2006

Some of Philip K. Dick's short stories features the sort of advertising being discussed here.

I think we'll get there and the advertising along with it. However, I think there will be alternatives, and the entire dynamic gives a whole new meaning to the digital divide. Sort of the divide within the divide as it were.

Some Japanese anime touches on the theme of course.

But really, it will only actually happen once Apple has invented it after others have.
posted by juiceCake at 3:05 PM on January 11, 2006

Ditto Artw: Or even more than a few. I can count a couple of dozen devices with microprocessors in my house, but none of them can or do talk to each other.

The applications are still fairly limited, but basically the reason they don't talk to each other is because you haven't paid someone to install that system yet. Right now, high-end homes (like, mulitmillion dollar) are fairly routinely built with control systems in place that allow you to program and control systems throughout the house, including lighting, audio/video, pools, security systems, and other stuff. It's all controlled from your computer and a couple access pads located around the house, even a remote if you want. Granted, this isn't the same as your fridge telling you your milk is sour, but I think the technological hurdle there is more with an adequate sensor in the fridge than any kind of interconnectedness with other systems. Once the overlay systems guys get appliance makers signed up, there's no reason that your dryer won't be able to alert you to when your clothes are done, although it may not be able to find lost socks without embedded RIFD tags.

Right now, the systems are typically hardwired, but with everything going to wifi it'll probably be easier for more functions to get on board. One manufacturer of these systems is Crestron.
posted by LionIndex at 3:12 PM on January 11, 2006

Once the overlay systems guys get appliance makers signed up

I think it's much more likely to go the other way. It would be far easier for someone like GE -- who already makes fridges, washing machines, kitchen appliances, lighting products, and all sorts of other stuff -- to buy or build a control system to tie them all together (and simultaneously de-commodify all of their bread-and-butter products) than for an integrator to pitch a bunch of disparate manufacturers into a system that will raise their overhead while failing to distinguish them from the other guys.
posted by bjrubble at 5:50 PM on January 11, 2006

LionIndex: The question remains, will the market actually want this. Folks buying high-end homes have all kinds of other toys too, but I would bet a good survey would find this stuff doesn't get used much, or as designed. My clothes dryer buzzes when the clothes are done. I think the paperless office analogy in one of the links is apt. You can build it, but it doesn't work.
posted by beagle at 6:27 PM on January 11, 2006

For the record, y'all, I agree with those of you who are questioning the existence of any kind of meaningful demand for the "digital home." (I cite that same Economist article in the book; I'm particularly fond of the inane and offensive quote from the Motorola guy.) I'm also inclined to the belief that there has, as yet, been no clear and crisply-articulated value proposition for ubicomp in the home.

But I don't think that's the whole story. I get into a whole hell of a lot more detail in Everyware, but the very existence of artifacts and conventions like RFID, UWB networking and IPv6 suggests to me that sooner or later, we'll be confronted with something that has all the qualities of ubiquitous computing whether we've asked for it or not.

So a good chunk of the book is about wrestling with the social, cultural, political and ethical implications of this. These are much more important to me (and much more interesting) than the sad-ass digital home wankeries everybody and his cousin suddenly seem to be peddling.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:00 PM on January 11, 2006

(Not that you'll find the *precise* term "sad-ass wankeries" in the book - I just went back and checked.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:02 PM on January 11, 2006

we'll be confronted with something that has all the qualities of ubiquitous computing whether we've asked for it or not.

This was kind of my point--the functionality is already being added to things, and the ability to tie them all together already exists for the high end market. Eventually it'll make its way down into standard products, even if the demand for them isn't there (I certainly don't need anything like this stuff--with the size of my place, an alarm clock functions as distributed audio).
posted by LionIndex at 8:15 AM on January 12, 2006

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