Ubiquitous Computing: Mark Weiser’s vision and legacy

This is a sub-section of the first chapter of my PhD thesis, its my attempt to reflect on Mark Weiser’s legacy in the field of ubiquitous computing.

2009 marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Mark Weiser, a man that many believe earned the title ‘visionary’. As a Principal Scientist and subsequently Chief Technology Officer at Xerox PARC, Weiser has been identified as the ‘godfather’ of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp). In the years since his demise many of the ideas that Weiser championed have come to greater prominence. As Yvonne Rogers points out this influence has been felt across industry, government and commercial research, from the European Union’s ‘disappearing computer’ initiative to MIT’s ‘Oxygen’, HP’s ‘CoolTown’ and Philips ‘Vision of the Future’. All of these projects aspired to Weiser’s tenet of the everyday environment and the objects within being embedded with computational capacities such that they might bend to our (human) will. Within the research community, as Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish remark ‘almost one quarter of all the papers published in the ‘Ubicomp’ conference between 2001 and 2005 cite Weiser’s foundational articles’.

The ‘foundational articles’ of ubicomp written by Weiser are not many in number, but are broad in the scale of their implication. Perhaps most significant is Weiser’s 1991 article published in Scientific American entitled ‘The Computer for the 21st Century’, not least because it features in a popular science publication. The second reason I suggest this article is significant is because of Weiser’s imaginative use of storytelling to convey his ideas, in the guise of the story of ‘Sal’, a professional single mother in which, as Yvonne Rogers suggests: ‘we see how the world evolves around Sal’s assumed needs, where computers, cameras and sensors are embedded into her world to make her life super efficient, smooth and calm’ . From this narrative, and Weiser’s further explication in the 1991 article and others, we can identify three key facets of the ubicomp vision: context aware computing; ambient/ubiquitous ‘intelligence’; and ambient tracking/monitoring of people and things.

Reflecting on the three principal attributes of Weiser’s ubicomp vision we can see quite how broad the implication of the Xerox PARC ubiquitous computing agenda was ‘one that speculated on a physical world richly and invisibly interwoven with sensors, actuators, displays’ and computational elements, embedded seamlessly in the everyday objects of our lives and connected through a continuous network’ (Weiser, Gold and Seely Brown, 1999).

One could get into the ‘tomorrow’s world’ game of checking the specifics of technical achievements against the predictions made, but this somewhat misses the significance of these forms of future orientation. The appeal to possible futures is not significant because technologies were predicted and then realised but because of the future orientation in and of itself. Weiser’s renditions of possible futures should therefore not be seen as the specification of goals (although 15 years ago certain aspects were, such as proof of concepts for multi-device wireless communications) but as the opening out of a creative space of thought. As Rich Gold, a close colleague of Weiser at Xerox PARC, pointed out the task was: ‘to construct a philosophy. A Ubi-Comp Cult’. Gold propagated Weiser’s vision of ubicomp, constructing the notion of product categories within ubicomp, by giving talks about ubicomp in many different forums and championed the ‘philosophy’ by placing it the heart of further research he conducted at PARC.

In the last article he published, Weiser suggested that ‘calm computing [is] the goal, describing the state of mind of the user, as opposed to the hardware configuration of the computer’ (Weiser, Gold and Seely Brown, 1999) and in an earlier book chapter with PARC colleague John Seely Brown: ‘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. Calmness is a new challenge that [ubicomp] brings to computing’ (Weiser and Seely Brown, 1997).

We can again see how an ‘ideal’ is set up by Weiser, just as with context-awareness, and laid out as a goal. The allure of a ‘calm’, non-obtrusive, experience of technology use as proposed by Weiser is predicated on the apparently simple supposition that computers might allow ‘[i]nformation [to] appear in the centre of our attention when needed and effortlessly disappear into the periphery of our attention when not’ (Rogers, 2006). Yvonne Rogers exemplifies the criticism of this depiction of calmness, specifically targeting the apparent ‘ambient intelligence’ required of ubicomp systems to achieve such ‘calm’ experiences of usage: ‘Many of the research projects that have followed in the footsteps of Weiser’s vision of calm computing have been disappointing; their achievements being limited by the extent to which they have been able to program computers to act on behalf of humans’ (Rogers, 2006). As others have pointed out, and as will be addressed in chapter 3, these types of argument stage the broader tension between R&D practices and a creeping technological determinism (see work by people like David Nye and Sally Wyatt).

Weiser clearly set ubiquitous computing in the context of advancing progress in the broader development of computing. Ubicomp, for Weiser, was a stage into which we would advance, where ‘[m]achines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs will make using computing as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods’ Weiser, 1991). In a 1996 article for a New York University ‘web magazine’, Weiser explicitly placed ubicomp in the context of ‘waves’ of computing:

‘The first wave of computing, from 1940 to about 1980 was dominated by many people serving one computer. The second wave, still peaking, has one person and one computer in uneasy symbiosis, staring at each other across the desktop without really inhabiting each other’s worlds. The third wave, just beginning, has many computers serving each person everywhere in the world. I call this last wave “ubiquitous computing” or “ubicomp”’ (Weiser, 1996).

In ‘The Coming Age of Calm Technology’, a book chapter co-authored with Seely Brown, Weiser went on to consolidate this figuration of historical ‘progress’ towards ubicomp. The ‘waves’ become ‘phases’ associated with key technologies, from the ‘mainframe computer’, via the personal computer and the internet, to ubicomp. Weiser’s rhetorical strategy, both to clearly explain the intensions of the ubicomp research project at PARC and to further an agenda, sets a tone of future orientation that has been subsequently adopted by many. By figuring ubicomp in what Bell and Dourish call a ‘proximate future’ Weiser granted license to those writing after him to appeal to that future and continue to situate ubicomp as to-come or as a goal. Abstracts or first paragraphs of ubicomp-related articles published in computer science and HCI conference proceedings and journals frequently figure technological advances in near futures that are ‘just around the corner’ (ibid.).

In an article calling for a move beyond ‘collective envisionment’ towards a ‘ubicomp of the present’, Bell and Dourish highlight that ‘of the 108 papers comprising the Ubicomp conference proceedings between 2001 and 2004, fully 47% of the papers are oriented towards a proximate (and inevitable) technological future’. Yet recent figures suggest Weiser’s influence continues to be felt. Citations of Weiser’s Scientific American article, ‘The Computer for the 21st Century’, numbered 81 for the period January 2007-October 2008.

Mark Weiser’s influence is still strongly felt in Computer Science literature and is still widely cited by those working in Human-Computer Interaction, ubicomp and the plethora of associated sub- agendas/genres of computing research. In his vision-led research ethos Weiser struck a balance between what we identify as fact/fiction, art/science and successfully formulated an ethos (or ‘cult’, following Gold) for alternative thinking about technology use. As Seely Brown remarked in an epilogue to one of Weiser’s last publications: ‘For Mark, sharp boundaries between the social and the technical, between the artistic and the scientific, and between work and play never existed’.

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2 Replies to “Ubiquitous Computing: Mark Weiser’s vision and legacy”

  1. I got this post from twitter, and I’m also a researcher in the ubicomp area.
    I’m currently finishing my master degree and Weiser’s visions are (for me) a goal we must aim for the future.
    What i found very inspiring in your post was that you point a different view of Weiser influence in ubicomp, other than we mostly see in papers and conferences.
    Great job.
    I’m looking forward for the complete work.

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