Researching Ubiquitous Computing as a Geographer

How does one summarise the background to a research project when it makes up an entire research agenda in a different discipline? This is a task I must continue to engage in as my project progresses. I would currently guide social sciences readers from the familiar ground of mobile communications technologies to the less familiar, and experimental, systems and devices of my area of research – Ubiquitous Computing, or ‘ubicomp’. We might start then, with the well-documented and wide-ranging rise in popularity of the capacity to communicate on the move, with mobile telephones and other mobile technologies (see: Harkin 2003, Ito et al. 2005, Ling 2004, Plant 2001).

The manner in which mobile communications technologies have been adopted and various associated practices – both linguistically and physically performed – have been the subject of a relatively small but significant amount of research in the social sciences (for example: Dave 2007, Laurier 2001, Licoppe & Inada 2007, Thrift & French 2002, Zook & Graham 2007). The growth in the devices and systems that are now being developed are more complex yet cheaper to produce (Rheingold 2002, 100-106, 144-152). Perceived demand or expectations of these mobile communications technologies have also apparently grown (cf. Harkin 2003), and companies and institutions push different agendas, opening up a broader variety of devices and the potential for new and different services. The use of mobile communications technologies not only for ‘traditional’ modes of communication, such as transmission of voice, but also for facilitating connections to the internet have also grown substantially with the development of such technologies (see: Ling 2003, Plant 2001, Rheingold 2002, Ofcom 2007).

A genre of mobile communications and information technologies has developed beyond traditional communications mechanisms of the transmission of voice or simple textual messages. With origins in computing and information technology the principal developments have been variously labelled but a consensus seems to be forming around a few key categories, in particular ‘pervasive’ or ‘ubiquitous’ computing.

‘Pervasive’ computing at its most general conceptualisation describes information and communications technologies (ICTs) that are capable of being utilised anywhere. The ethos of ‘ubiquitous’ computing (or ‘ubicomp’) started somewhat differently. As Mark Weiser[1] laid out in his influential 1991 Scientific American article, and also countless journal articles and conference presentations, ubicomp was a radical proposal of spreading computers throughout the everyday lived environment (as opposed to the contemporary dominant model of one fixed, multi-purpose computer per person). However, in the course of developments in computing technologies in general, ubiquitous and pervasive computing have become broadly synonymous, largely as a result of a relative decrease in size and increase in potential mobility of the various constituent devices.

‘Ubiquitous computing’ has been adopted more readily as a term in the titles of books and conferences and so, given an understanding of the term as roughly describing systems of devices that allow their various users a variety of means for multiple communication and interconnection, in the description of such technologies I will utilise that appellation.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the research programmes at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) shifted in focus from desktop computing, which had become the dominant means of computing use , to what became known as ubiquitous computing or ‘ubicomp’ (see: Dourish 2004, 28-30 cf. Galloway 2004 Weiser et al. 1999). The underlying premise of ubiquitous computing research has been to think beyond universal devices such as the personal computer and to make computing technologies ‘disappear’:

‘A good tool is an invisible tool. By invisible, I mean that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool. Eyeglasses are a good tool – you look at the world, not the eyeglasses’ (Weiser 1993, 7).

As Galloway (2004) suggests, Weiser’s vision of ubiquitous computing was central to its development and arguably still provides an influential ethos for contemporary ‘ubicomp’ research & development. As opposed to ‘virtual reality’ technologies, which dominated technological futurism in the 1990s, ubiquitous computing was meant to ‘go beyond the machine – render it invisible’ (Galloway 2004, 387 original emphasis). Rather than requiring the (human) user to adapt to the computer, and its peculiar multi-purpose means of interaction, one of the central aims of ubiquitous computing research is for the development of computers to adapt to the users. To perform such a ‘disappearance’ of technology, it has been suggested by Norman (1998, 261 cited in Galloway 2004, 387), ‘it is time to make technology conform to the needs of people’. In other words, to bring about useful and ubiquitous computing techniques, the devices must be conveniently at-hand and not demand special effort to utilise them . This is precisely what projects such as HP Labs ‘CoolTown’ epitomise, working towards ‘web presence’, or internet addresses, for people, places and things (cf. Kindberg et al. 2002).

The designed ‘disappearance’ of ICTs into the background of potential use as ‘everywhere computing that does not live on a personal device … but is in the woodwork’ (Weiser 1996 cited in Rheingold 2002, 87) prompted those working at PARC to posit a relaxed or calm interaction with computing technologies:

‘If computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control… [W]hen computers are all around, so that we want to compute whilst doing something else and have more time to be more fully human, we must radically rethink the goals, context and technology of the computer and all the other technolog[ies] crowding into our lives. Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technological design of then ext fifty years’ (Weiser & Seely Brown 1996, 3 cited in Galloway 2004, 387 – additional emphasis).

What is evident by the desire to attend to apparently ‘more human’, social and cultural activities is not only an aspiration for interdisciplinary research in ‘ubicomp’ but also the centrality and influence of imaginative practices in ubiquitous computing research and development (R&D). There have been a number of cross- and inter-disciplinary collaborations and studies in and of ubiquitous computing . There has been significant intersection of arts and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research, to produce novel spaces of experience (for example: Blast Theory 2001 2005 Haque 2005 Proboscis 2005 Rueb 2005), as well as various forays across disciplinary boundaries by social scientists to comment and speculate about the significance of ubiquitous computing projects as ‘new’ phenomena (for example: Dave 2007, de Souza e Silva 2006 Dodge & Kitchin 2005 2007 McCullough 2007 Zook & Graham 2007). Many, if not the majority, of these efforts focus on the later parts of development and consumer-user utilisation of ubiquitous computing applications. A particular focus within such work has been placed upon the ‘urban’. Paulos et al. (2004) for example cite United Nations reports forecasting the majority of the world’s population living in urban areas and within that urbanised population point towards the habitualisation of mobile communications technology use, which they infer ushers in ubiquitous computing adoption. This ‘urban’ trend is mirrored in a recent ‘pervasive computing’ themed issue of Environment and Planning B: Planning & Design (cf. Dave 2007), in which many of the case studies described are based in urban environments (cf. Townsend 2007 Paay et al. 2007 Zook & Graham 2007) .

A variety of applications and categories of ubiquitous computing have emerged in the near-twenty years of its development . As Greenfield (2006, 11) suggests: ‘There are many ubiquitous computings’. A particular theme that ties together work on ‘ubicomp’ across HCI, User Experience and Computer-Supported Collaborative Working (CSCW) research in computer science is that of ‘context’. Of course, it goes without saying, that technical interaction takes place in a range of material, social and temporal contexts. However, in HCI particularly, theorisation of context in literature associated with ubiquitous computing (cf. Dourish 2004 Linnhoff-Popien & Strang 2007 Tamminen et al. 2004) has problematised context not simply as ‘a set of descriptive features of settings’ (Dourish 2004, 27) but as situated in practice, ‘forms of engagement with those settings’ (Ibid.).

The contexts of activity or locale that ubiquitous computing applications are designed to be ‘aware’ are narrowed by the presumption of an urban situation (as previously noted) and the anticipated practices in which users might be engaged. Many ubiquitous computing projects and papers are concerned with ‘domestic’ (cf. Howard et al. 2007 Rode 2006) and ‘everyday’ (cf. Bell & Dourish 2004) situations. With a significant amount of personal and confidential data associated with everyday activities, personal information privacy is also a significant concern within ubiquitous computing research (cf. Greenfield 2006, 126-28, 246-49 Melinger 2004 Schmandt & Ackerman 2003).

Existing personal and portable technologies offer interesting insights into the ways in which ubiquitous and ‘calmer’ systems are adopted into everyday life and practices. According to a recent UK government report (Ofcom 2007), of the 31% of UK adults with internet-enabled mobile phones, half use them to go online and a fifth of them do so at least once a week. The activities carried out are principally focussed on the retrieval of particular information, 59% of UK adults who use their phone to access the internet look for news and sports headlines and weather forecasts (Ofcom 2007, 42). However, ‘general browsing’ features as the second most common activity (52% of UK adults do so regularly), intimating that there is a will do adopt such information and leisure services as part of everyday life routines (Ibid.).

The mobile potential of laptop computers has also been keenly utilised for untethered access to the internet, particularly amongst business and academic users. Amongst the 21% of UK adults that own a wifi-enabled laptop only 34% have used public ‘hotspots’, 7% of the adult UK population (Ofcom 2007, 44). Of the approximately 12,000 commercial UK access locations, or ‘hotspots’, 63% are in bars, restaurants or cafes, 14% are in public spaces (such as leisure centres and public buildings) and transport terminals (airports and railway stations).

With the integration of wifi and mobile phone networks, the statistics showing mixed levels of public adoption demonstrate a far from straightforward route of development. This brings into sharp relief the singularly optimistic visions of progress in ubiquitous computing development. Ubiquitous computing may be accordingly situated within a number of academic and popular agendas regarding the mobility of people and commodities, the practices of ‘technoscience’ and form a backdrop for wider debates regarding the sedimented conceptualisations of technology in the social sciences as a whole.


1. Mark Weiser is widely acknowledged by other Computer Scientists as a principal innovator of ubicomp. Weiser was director of the well-known Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), the research centre in which the modern graphical user interface (of which Windows is the most widely used), the ‘mouse’ and many other innovations were invented, and during his directorship in the early 1990s many experiments were conducted to develop ways in which computing devices might be integrated in to various parts of everyday life. Weiser tragically died in 1999 at the age of 47 leaving a legacy of a different way of thinking about computing and key patents and papers that form the basis of (Computer Science) ubicomp research today.


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