Addressing ubicomp: Computing people, places and things

The following is an edited excerpt from my PhD thesis, which articulates the various ways we might understand what we mean by ‘ubiquitous computing’

‘The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it’ (Weiser, 1991).

‘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) ‘ (Weiser, 1993).

In the last 20 years the idea of ubiquitous computing has been reiterated, revised and extraordinarily expanded. Starting from the premise that computing might be un-tethered from the grey boxes that sit on desks and become ’embedded in the woodwork’ of everyday life, ‘ubicomp’ has come to signify research agendas, an eponymous conference, technical goals, an ethos and a legacy. This thesis focuses upon the future orientation inherent to all of the threads that weave together to form ubicomp. From the outset the details of ubicomp have been positioned in the future. Weiser’s ‘Computer for the 21st Century‘ popularised a research agenda in the guise of a vision that many subsequently adopted. Yet the article was doubly influential because, as Bell and Dourish observe, ‘it also set a rhetorical tone that many have adopted’. Therefore the same concern for near futures is present in contemporary ubicomp agendas, the papers presented in conferences, and the ways in which ‘advances’ in the field are measured.

There are a number of common threads to the various applications of ‘ubicomp’ as a descriptor for research activity. These themes all somewhat branch from the first and most obvious implication of calling it ‘ubiquitous’. It is worth situating the concept in its initial time-space, for when Weiser and his colleagues were experimentally developing the projects that came to make up the ubicomp project there were few affordable personal computers, no ‘World Wide Web’ and mobile telephones could barely fit into a handbag let alone a pocket. The initial experimental systems created as ‘ubi-comp’ at Xerox PARC under Weiser’s leadership were fixed at three scales of device, called ‘tabs’, ‘pads’ and ‘boards’. As Dourish observes, ubicomp proceeded on three tracks, which ‘were known as computation by the inch, the foot and the yard’ (Dourish, 2004), referring to the three types of device. Inch-scale ‘tabs’ were something akin to ‘computationally enhanced Post-It Notes’, foot-scale ‘pads’ were designed as what might now be recognised as ‘tablet PCs’, and yard-scale boards were epitomised by ‘LiveBoard’: ‘a large-scale display”¦ supporting multiple pens, a sort of computationally enhanced whiteboard’. Of course these things were not supposed to exist in isolation, tabs, pads and boards were supposed to be prolific in number and scattered throughout the everyday environment:

‘In the everyday environment, information continually undergoes transformations and translations, and we should expect the same in a computationally enhanced version of that environment such as might be delivered to us by ubiquitous computing’ (Dourish, 2004).

As a descriptor for various research agendas and as a means of articulating more broadly ideas about the permeation of everyday lives and environments, ‘ubicomp’ has been taken up by academics, industrial researchers, technology enthusiasts, artists and cultural commentators. The growth and variety of meaning ascribed to the signifier ‘ubicomp’ leaves a quandary – for the terminology has outgrown the initial definitions by Weiser and his colleagues. This is perhaps understandable, for a lot of time has passed and research completed since the late 1980s. On the other hand, many people might be talking at crossed purposes. Does an ‘electrical engineer’ working on ‘wideband power line positioning for indoor localisation’ actually mean the same thing when calling their work ‘ubicomp’ as a Professor in a ‘School of Information Technologies’ investigating the privacy implications of ‘ubiquitous personalised applications’? Such questions are further complicated when one attempts to list the terms for synonymous and directly related technology applications, services, research and theory objects, for example:

ambient computing, ambient intelligence, augmented reality, blended realities, calm technology, geospatial web, harmonious interaction, internet of things, mixed reality, near field communication, pervasive computing, physical computing, radio frequency identification, seamless/seamful computing, tangible media, wearable computing”¦

‘Ubicomp’ might then be seen as so broad in definition that it is too vague. However, it may also be seen as an apparent, and perhaps understandable, desire to reduce a variety of complicated practices to a single object. In a 2006 keynote presentation at the Ubicomp conference, science fiction author Bruce Sterling stated that the reason ubiquitous computing appealed to him was due to ‘the majesty of the ideas and the lyricism of the language’. It is perhaps this broadness of implication, the ‘majesty’ of which Sterling talks, and the ‘lyricism’ with which they are described that allows the diversity of disciplinary interfaces between researchers and between academia, government and industry under one term: ‘ubiquitous computing’. In the next section I chart four particular themes in the discourse of ubicomp to draw out key analytic avenues. Before moving on I want to spend the remains of this section elaborating, from the theme of ‘disappearance’, a map of some common characteristics that loosely bind together the heterogeneous community of research and development I have thus far described.

Nearly 20 years on from Weiser’s Scientific American article the ‘ubiquity’ denoted in ubicomp has taken on some particular meanings. The ‘ubiquitous’ nature of ubicomp, from its inception, was envisaged as the ‘disappearance’ of computing. The underlying premise of ubiquitous computing research was 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’ (Weiser, 1993).

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). 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 Cognitive Scientist Don Norman that ‘it is time to make technology conform to the needs of people’ (Norman, 1998). 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. More broadly the themes of ubiquity and disappearance feature alongside what has become a normative understanding of an increasing abundance, distribution and, more recently, mobility of computing technologies in the everyday environment.
To ‘disappear’ into the everyday environment does not necessarily mean hidden from view. In the work of sociologist, and collaborator with Weiser at PARC, Lucy Suchman, we can see how a turn towards ethnomethodology by researchers in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and an exploration of philosopher Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology (by Suchman in particular) led to a more nuanced conceptualisation of ‘disappearance’ (for detailed discussion of this phenomenological turn in HCI see: Dourish, 2004). In her own work, contemporary to the beginnings of ubicomp, Suchman draws on Heidegger’s concept of the ‘ready-to-hand’ as the mechanism by which equipment disappears (see: Suchman, 1987). The disappearance of technology can accordingly be drawn between Heidegger’s distinction between that which is ‘ready-to-hand’, such as a hammer that is used as if without thought – we simply think in terms of the action of hammering, and what is ‘present-at-hand’, those things one must actively think about to engage with (such as when something breaks), that stand apart from what might usefully be employed:

‘Just as a good, well-balanced hammer “disappears” in the hands of a carpenter and allows him to concentrate on the big picture, we hope that computers can participate in a similar magic disappearing act’ (Weiser et al., 1999).

As with other ‘equipment’ (following the definition formulated by Heidegger), computing devices supplement the body and are thus manipulable. Thus in our use of equipment ‘when action is proceeding smoothly it is essentially transparent to us’ (Suchman, 1987): ‘When we are using equipment it has a tendency to “disappear”’ (Dreyfus, 1991).

What were commonly called ‘computers’ at the turn of the 21st century were still rather large, relative to a human adult body, and expensive, relative to the average salary, yet the number of devices that we could reasonably call a computer was rapidly increasing. A popular understanding of an abundance of computing might be argued to stem from the popularisation of ‘Moore’s Law‘, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s prediction that the complexity and performance of a computer chip at minimum cost would double every two years (Moore, 1965). As Weiser’s PARC colleague Rich Gold (2007) points out, the constitutive nature of this apparently self-fulfilling prophecy acts at the foundation for other assumptions and thus technology developers took ‘Moore’s Law’ to be true and started assuming it to be fact. Accordingly computing components were proliferated throughout other types of product. The success of assuming the veracity of such expectations has thus arguably become a ‘normal’ part of attitudes towards ‘progress’ in the development of computing technology. Adam Greenfield (2006) demonstrates this readiness to assume an ongoing advancement when he anticipates the impact of ubicomp:

‘Ever more pervasive, ever harder to perceive”¦ Such ubiquitous information technology”¦ will appear in many different contexts and take a wide variety of forms, but will affect almost every one of us, whether we’re aware of it or not’ (Greenfield, 2006).

As Greenfield hints, another aspect of the ‘ubiquity’ designed in and for ubicomp is the idea that computing technologies can/will be ‘aware’ of, blend into and even support many different contexts of use. ‘Context awareness’, as it is referred to in ubicomp literature, is another general premise of ubicomp research. Weiser (1993) cites Suchman’s work as an example of addressing how computing might support ‘situated actions’ (Suchman, 1987), by which Weiser meant how ‘computer systems should respond to the settings within which they are used’ (Dourish, 2004). The ‘context’ most frequently alluded to when context-aware computing is broached is that of location and indeed a whole host of ‘locative’ computing applications have emerged with the advent of mobile telephones with inbuilt access to the satellite-based Global Positioning System. Thinking more broadly to types of human activity or scenarios of use, Dourish has adeptly problematised the notion of context:

‘if we take “ubiquitous computing” seriously, then we should be applying its ideas ubiquitously, not just in the relatively narrow areas of interaction with handheld and embedded devices”¦ [Context] is not an aspect of how the technology is designed, but rather is an aspect of how that technology is used and incorporated into practices’ (Dourish, 2004).

Finally, if (as already described) there are lots of synonyms and similar terms for the (academic and industrial) research investigated in this project – why is the term ubiquitous computing/ubicomp specifically used in this thesis? The reasoning employed here can be explained in two points: the first is the breadth of usage of the term, and second the heritage of the term. I want to begin to draw on the interviews conducted for this research to exemplify these points. The heritage of the term is expressed as a key influence by an expert informant of this research, the co-founder of a ubicomp-related start-up company:

‘Basically I use”¦ ubiquitous computing as the um, the oldest term for these sort of ideas, and I use it for that reason. Because I think that”¦ it’s a distraction to make these kind of “¦ I guess it would be syntactical ah, distinctions rather than genuinely semantic ones”¦’ (Interviewee 5).

The view of interviewee 5 is emblematic of the agency the heritage of Weiser’s work lends to the terminology. Other interviewees expressed similar sentiments, which were often explicitly in relation to Weiser as a form of figurehead, see the quotes below. The research conducted by Weiser and his colleagues at PARC led to ubicomp becoming a ‘new field of computer science’ (Weiser et al., 1999), with an eponymous annual international conference convened by the Association of Computing Machinery and several journals using the terminology in their titles. To further explain the choice of terminology I want to close this section with some abridged quotes taken from the interviews conducted for this thesis with ubicomp researchers in Silicon Valley California (July-August 2008). I have drawn out five particular themes from the answers given to the question: ‘What do you believe ubicomp means?’ These themes are: a complex of devices & systems, information environments, invisible technologies, supporting human activity, and Mark Weiser’s definition of ubicomp. Across the gamut of responses to this query, I believe it is possible to see the breadth of interpretation of the term ‘ubicomp’, the persistent influence of Weiser’s work, and the common threads of disappearance and context-awareness (as discussed above).

First, and in common with Weiser’s description of the world in which ‘Sal’ lives, many researchers consider ubicomp to be the production and proliferation of a complex of devices and systems. In this way, ubicomp does not mean a future in which we carry around one ‘ubiquitous’ device but rather that we have many, as, researcher at Yahoo Research, Interviewee 8 puts it:

‘I think at its blandest level, it [ubicomp] is just um, you know, computational artefacts in a physical world, whether they are, you know, physically in space or whether they’re kind of personal artefacts that you carry around which means, kind of, computing power wherever you are, whenever you want it”¦’ (Interviewee 8).

There is an abstraction away from ‘the computer’ as a type of device to ‘computing’ as a capacity that can be drawn upon or exhibited by particular forms of equipment. The desktop computer thus ceases to be dominant model for the material form of computing. Several interviewees explained ubicomp in terms of this development away from the single desktop computer performing all forms of ‘computation’, as succinctly demonstrated by Interviewee 4 (expert in law concerning privacy and technology use, specialising in mobile technologies):

‘It’s definitely the movement away from the kind of desktop computing metaphor to a world in which computing power is, you know, possibly embedded in all sorts of everyday objects, that’s how I think of it’ (Interviewee 4).

Whereas the desktop computer was a device which specified a location and means for doing all of the tasks that computing enables, many of the ways that ubicomp is anticipated feature an ‘ecosystem’ of devices and systems. Accordingly, there is an anticipated move away from general purpose computers towards specific forms of computing capability invested in particular devices, as Interviewee 5 suggests:

‘the way that I define it [ubicomp] is [“¦] the larger set of ideas about the fragmentation of information processing from these monolithic general purpose devices to a broad range of ah”¦ a broad range of specialised devices’ (Interviewee 5).

This is, of course, not a shift away from computing per se, but a proliferation of devices and systems that enable access to computation in a variety of ways. The underlying grammar of computation therefore remains.

Second, some researchers shift the focus from devices to the general environment to envisage ubicomp. Accordingly, rather than thinking about computing as a capacity of a multiplicity of devices, the capacity of ubiquitous computing in general is ascribed to an environment. This is partly figured as the ‘context awareness’ that Weiser describes in the fictional world of Sal, what a researcher at PARC, calls ‘information environments’:

‘[T]echnologies that let people exist in an information environment rather than thinking about controlling a device, which is more what personal computing, or mainframe computing are about, they’re about controlling this computer device”¦ and I actually think ubiquitous computing as a label implies that, so its in some ways its an unfortunate label. Because it suggests that what a person is doing is computing, and that’s not what people are doing, they’re doing whatever it is they’re trying”¦ to accomplish and they happen to use computers along the way’ (Interviewee 5).

This is figured as a reciprocal relationship, not only as the technology being ‘aware’ of the environment but also to consider how the environment relates to the technology. Ubicomp is therefore, in this sense, not reducible to a suite of mobile devices, as entrepreneur Interviewee 6 suggests, it is:

‘technology that integrates more deeply into the everyday environment, and so”¦ a lot of that up until this point has been the design of mobile devices and sensing devices”¦ technology that is aware of the environment and who’s around in it, but I think that the other half of that is actually considering how the environment relates back to that technology, which I think is as much a part of the field as the technology side of things’ (Interviewee 6).

The consideration of this reciprocal relationship between technology and environment, with a view to developing forms of ‘information environment’, has led to an increase in inter-disciplinary forms of ubicomp-related research. This increasing inter-disciplinarity has led to the introduction of ethnographic research techniques and engagement with philosophies of technology use (for detailed discussion see: Dourish, 2004).

A third way that ubicomp has been conceptualised is to focus much more upon the human activities that the technologies are designed to support. Rather than assume the material format of the computer, researchers might study the types of activities that they would like the technology to support. The study of human activities and the ways in which technologies can support them, has become a significant part of ubicomp R&D, especially given the variety of technologies implicated in such research. As Interviewee 7, senior researcher in a Palo Alto lab, observed:

‘[W]hereas in the past you might have started with the notion, sort of, the archaic notion of the computer box, if you were doing computer science that’s what you’d start with, with ubicomp you start more with the activity”¦ how can I support this activity and that support might come in the form of just a website, a typical desktop application, or a more mobile application or a sensor with no interface, umm, or interfaces that are basically synchronous and distributed from sensors”¦’ (Interviewee 7).

For some researchers this does not mean a ‘disappearing’ computer, it means calling the technology to the attention of users in particular ways that lend material agency to information, as a senior researcher at Yahoo Research, suggests:

‘I think there’s a whole other part of the original agenda, which is around what became, you know, the disappearing computer or calm technology or computation in the background and while I think that’s a laudable goal, a lot of my work has been about”¦ working with people to surface information in such a way that its actually usable but also configurable or interpretable in different ways, and so my interest is really about information flows, between artefacts and people, and its, sort of, broadly speaking, kind of socio-technical systems where any individual is part of an information system, um, and ubiquitous computing technologies, i.e. embedded computing, in social physical environments, is a part of that sort of overall system’ (Interviewee 8).

Fourth, and in relation to the previous point, some researchers discuss ubicomp in terms of the ideas of the ‘disappearance’ or ‘invisibility’ of technology. For some this may be a glib understanding of the progressive miniaturisation of technology ‘out of sight’ but for others, including Weiser – as discussed above, this means the shrinking from conscious awareness. The negotiation of the differences in understanding here is one of the areas in which the political critique of this thesis takes hold. Invisible or ubiquitous computing is, in a sense, ‘ready-to-hand’, as a former researcher at Intel Research Berkeley, explains:

‘[I]t’s the embedding of computers”¦ invisibly into the fabric of everyday life. But, unlike a lot of the people who tend to see invisibility who tend to see invisibility as a material attribute of the technology, like if its really small it must be invisible”¦ I tend to see invisibility as a kind of practice-based attribute. So it doesn’t matter how small something is, if it screws up all the time and you notice it a lot its not ubiquitous”¦ or if it’s a special prototype and you have to take a lot of care of it, but that’s a kind of idealised definition. In reality, I’ll go along with the idea that”¦ anything that’s”¦ more”¦ body-worn, integrated in with architecture, or um, kind of tangibly interacted with, and not say, windows, pointer interacted with, is ubiquitous technology’ (Interviewee 9).

Fifth, and as a final point, the legacy of Weiser’s ‘vision’ for ubicomp remains prevalent in the understanding of the term described by those involved in R&D. For example, for some Weiser’s staging of ubicomp as another ‘phase’, or the next ‘paradigm’, of computing holds true. Interviewee 9, Conference Chair of one of the ‘Ubicomp’ international conferences and senior researcher in mobile technology R&D at Northwestern USA Lab, enthusiastically evoked this vision of ‘waves’ or ‘paradigms’ of computing:

‘I very much buy into Mark Weiser’s original vision about the waves of computing, uh, there was a mainframe era, the PC era, and there we’re moving off the desktop and I would even say, off the laptop, because to me laptops are a minor perturbation, but as we move into more of the mobile era, and, ah, being able to situate giving new contexts, ah, I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of, ah, what might be possible’ (Interviewee 9).

For some researchers it is perhaps the ‘lyricism’, following Bruce Sterling, of Weiser’s ‘visionary’ agenda that expresses the sentiment of their research ethos. Interviewee 11 expressed an admiration for Weiser’s turn of phrase in the evocation of his research vision:

‘[A] lot of people fall back to Mark Weiser’s original vision of ubiquitous computing but I specifically like a particular phrasing of one of his descriptions where he says ah, ubiquitous computing is where communication technology blends into the fabric of our everyday lives, and I think that really catches the essence of what ubicomp means for me, so where there’s this almost seamless interplay between, you know, employing technologies to ah, communicate with others or to manage our everyday lives’ (Interviewee 10).

However, there is a risk that invoking Weiser as the authority, for some the ‘godfather’, for a normative agenda becomes oppressive and reduces the potential to say anything ‘new’. As such the term itself becomes slippery. This was clearly expressed by interviewee 11, a former HP Labs researcher and researcher at Nokia Research Centre:

‘[U]bicomp, in my mind, has the routes in the community that was”¦ well, in the 90s working on handheld devices and sensors and it was a mix of ah, systems community and kind of HCI community”¦ many people have positioned ubicomp as something that comes after mobility”¦ so you know, we’re in the mobile era but we’ll get to the ubicomp era. Um”¦ but somehow that doesn’t fit it either, I mean there is the”¦ Mark Weiser’s paper which ah”¦ one, these days, almost gets annoyed with how often it gets quoted, you know, it’s the first sentence of each paper I review”¦ like – yes [in begrudging voice], yes that’s disappearing technologies and all of that”¦ but I think the reality is slightly different’ (Interviewee 11).

As Interviewee 11 suggests, the invocation of Weiser’s research has become a shorthand for referring to a particular normative route for research, which does not always pay head to the changing nature of the broader research agenda. Just as any other research agenda then, ubicomp is frequently seen in combination with other ideas, which is made evident by one of Weiser’s former colleagues:

‘I do use the label ubicomp, I do think it’s a huge label. Um, I am also working in other fields now that I refer to as mixed reality, augmented reality, virtual worlds, virtual environments, I sort of think of them as a continuum, starting um, with ubicomp on one end perhaps and virtual environments on the other end, and there’s all manner of systems and things in-between. And it’s probably not just a single continuum it’s probably a, you know, multidimensional space. I do think of a lot of, um, what I do as ubicomp, um, I was at PARC working in a Weiser’s group in the 90s and, er, that was where we really sort of, a lot of the work we were doing there came out of his, you know, calm computing idea’ (Interviewee 12).

‘Ubicomp’ has a peculiar agency as a means of describing particular types of future orientation towards as-yet un-actualised forms of technological encounter. The openness to interpretation of Weiser’s work and the subsequent invocations of his vision marks out ubicomp as a significant addition to the ways in which we imagine technological experience.

Given the variety of the ways of understanding ubicomp, it seems reasonable to ask: how does one summarise the background to a research project when it makes up an entire agenda, or research ethos, in a different discipline? As Adam Greenfield states at the start of his book ‘Everyware‘: ‘There are many ubiquitous computings’ (Greenfield, 2006).

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