The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.
-Mark Weiser, 1991 “The Computer for the 21st Century” Scientific American
The goal is to achieve the most effective kind of technology, that which is essentially invisible to the user… I call this future world “Ubiquitous Computing” (Ubicomp).
-Mark Weiser, 1993 “Some Computer Science issues in Ubiquitous Computing” Communications of the ACM
2009 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of a man that many believe earned the title ‘visionary’, his name was Mark Weiser. As a Principal Scientist and subsequently Chief Technology Officer at Xerox PARC, Weiser is best known as the ‘godfather’ of ubiquitous computing. 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 EU’s ‘disappearing computer’ initiative to MIT’s ‘Oxygen’, HP’s ‘CoolTown’ and Phillips ‘Vision of the Future’. All of these projects aspired to Weiser’s tenet of the everyday environment and the objects within being embeded with computational capacities such that they might bend to our (human) will. Within the research community, as Bell and Dourish remark, ‘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’ and ‘almost one quarter of all the papers published in the Ubicomp conference between 2001 and 2005 cite Weiser’s foundational articles’.
I’m no fan of coining neologisms, but(!) I think I have a need for a word that pithily and succinctly allows me to cast mild derision at certain forms of speculation. It seems to be possible to carve out a career by publicising one’s work by stretching beyond the conventional limits of the remit of a particular project and making grand claims about ‘progress’. This is often identifiable by the monotonous use of phrases such as “in the future you/we will…”. Sometimes this is excusable, people get excitedly exuberant about their research and ideas (sometimes it’s done for you!), but other times it is clearly a deliberate tactic. Thus, I think we can describe what they’re up to as ‘spectaculation’. For it is not idle speculation but taking a speculative claim and widening its application, making it sound more important and thus more news-worthy i.e. spectacular. So we arrive at spectaculation, and of course somebody else (probably lots of people actually) has thought of this already (in a slightly different sense): credit where it’s due.
“Coined by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s (PARC) Computer Science Laboratory (CSL), [Ubiquitous Computing] describes a vision of the future. Just as electric motors have disappeared into the background of everyday life, PARC scientists envision a future where mobile computational devices will be similarly transparent. Potentially numbering the 100s per person these devices are nothing like those you use today. They are mobile. They know their location, and they communicate with their environment.”
I have no idea if I’m allowed to put this up but it seems a desperate shame that this video isn’t held in one complete file, easily accessible to the public and to researchers, given the historical significance of the work conducted on ubicomp at PARC by Mark Weiseret al. during hte late 80s early 90s. Please see the original files here: http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/UbiMovies.html and read more about Mark Weiser by sticking his name in Google.
Please note that I had to edit out 2 minutes of the more technical stuff to get the video down to under 10mins.
The future was a beautiful place, once.
Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town
on public display in the Civic Hall.
The ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions,
blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,
board-game suburbs, modes of transportation
like fairground rides or executive toys.
Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.
And people like us at the bottle-bank
next to the cycle-path, or dog-walking
over tended strips of fuzzy-felt grass,
or motoring home in electric cars,
model drivers. Or after the late show –
strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
all underwritten in the neat left-hand
of architects – a true, legible script.
I pulled that future out of the north wind
at the landfill site, stamped with today’s date,
riding the air with other such futures,
all unlived in and now fully extinct.
In 1990 Motorola produced a video depicting a Ubicomp type vision that was a little more conservative than some other ‘vision videos’ being produced around the same time but has many of the usual constituent elements. What is striking is that the use of mobile phones must have been ‘futuristic’ then but one can’t help considering it banal now…
One of the examples of ubicomp like technology that was referred to the most in my interviews in California last year was the diegetic prototype [see slide 29] gestural interface in the film Minority Report. This was predominantly the brainchild of a chap called John Underkoffler who was the “scientific advisor” on the film, and has since been an advisor on several other films including Iron Man. According to a paper by David Kirby, currently in-press, Underkoffler’s work at the Media Lab was noticed by the production designer and prop master for Minority Report and was brought in as primary science consultant. For Kirby, Underkoffler’s interface is a prime example of a diegetic prototype, a prototype realised in fictional narrative and image to persuade audiences of a technological need, as Kirby suggests of the gestural interface in the film:
These technologies not only appear normal while on screen but they also fit seemlessly into the entire diegetic world. In these cases audiences will accept as true that characters still use these technologies even when they are off-screen… To achieve the sense of an extraordinary techonlogy appearing as ordinary within the diegetic space Underkoffler established the gestural interface as a “self-consistent technological entity” that adhered not only to the rules of hte diegetic world but also to its own internal logic and the constraints of real-world computer technologies.
And, indeed, that diegetic prototype has become a “real-world computer technology”, as demonstrated below.
NTT Docomo have created a few vision videos (but this one is easily accessible via YouTube), many seemed to target the end of this decade. The video below uses yet another schmultzy storyline full of pathos in which to situate (and thus ‘humanise’) apparently futuristic everyday technologies. NTT Docomo depict a rather unsettlingly monolithic future of technology, in which everyone and everything is connected together and monitored. A prime example of the apparently easy trade-off between privacy and seamless integration of systems without any consideration of political repercussions…
Liz Goodman pointed out this peculiar ubicomp style vision of the apparently everyday being disrupted by disaster. I would echo Liz’s criticism that it (rather poorly) depicts a pretty awful future. Another (recent) ‘past computing future’ video to add to the list though.
The at-best amoral (and probably, at worst, deeply unpleasant) use of a disaster that bears striking resemblance to various recent tragic events is astounding. I would hazard, to animate is not only cheaper but it retains the almost clinical cleanliness of (usually) anodyne ‘future vision’ videos. The narrative is facile to the point of being slightly offensive: the producers use this disaster imagery just to set up quite boring and glib analysis of communications infrastructure. That aside, the graphical aesthetic is, I suppose, interesting. As Liz says:
Do, however, watch it for the moment when an epileptic jogger recovers from an almost-seizure (monitored in real-time by the sort of highly paid doctor who wouldn’t be caught dead doing real-time monitoring in the US) just before a plane (!) rams into a skyscraper and the scenario turns to disaster in a busy city. Crowds running wildly, people checking their mobile phones (?) as debris rains down on them.
The above video, entitled “The Ambient Life“, was apparently made for the Freeband Communication research initiative, which is a Dutch national programme of research in and around ‘ambient intelligence’ (a largely European synonym for Ubicomp).