In September 1991, Scientific American published an article by Mark Weiser, then head of the PARC Computer Science Laboratory at Xerox, titled “Computer for the twenty-first centuryIn that article he discussed his ideas about a computing infrastructure disappearing into the background, calling it “ubiquitous computing.”
Weiser’s ubiquitous computing future was the future where technology was ubiquitous, and where we interacted with them through what he called ‘tabs’, ‘boards’ and ‘walls’.
He described it as follows: “The ubiquitous names of computing The third wave in computing, is just beginning. In the beginning it was mainframe computers, each one shared by many people. Now we are in the age of personal computing, person and machine stare at each other uncomfortably across the desktop. Then comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of quiet technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives.”
This third wave of computing is the one we live in, with its smartphones, its tabs, its touch-enabled tablets and computers, its tablets, and its giant flat screens on its walls. But it’s not a particularly quiet world, where all of our devices demand attention, and where we have to have an endless array of interactions with our screens.
Ignorance is bliss (when it comes to computers)
Instead, we’re gravitating to another wave, one that’s taking Weiser’s ubiquitous computing vision and integrating it with the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and the ultra-wide-scale cloud to deliver what’s called “peripheral computing.” As an alternative to traditional computing paradigms, ambient computing takes its cues from the musical Brian Enowho coined the term “ambient music” for his slow compositions, calling it something that “must be as ignorant as it is interesting”.
Ambient computing is computing that can be ignored. It’s there, but in the background, it does the job we designed it to do. One definition is the computer you are using without knowing you are using it. This is close to Inoue’s definition of his music – ignorance and fun.
Much of what we do with smart speakers is an introduction to ambient computing. It’s not the full ambient experience, because it depends only on your voice. But you are using a computer without sitting at the keyboard, talking in the air. Things get even more exciting when this smart speaker becomes a front for a smart home, where it can respond to inquiries and take action, turn on the lights or change the temperature in the room.
But what if that speaker was not there at all, where control comes from a smart home that takes advantage of sensors to operate without any conscious interaction on your part? You enter a room and the lights come on, both because sensors detect your presence and because another set of sensors indicates that the current light level in the room is lower than your preference. The sun may have set, and it may rain; What’s important is that the system delivered your chosen response without any interaction on your part.
Living with ambient computing
With ambient computing, any interaction must be by choice, driven by the user rather than the system. Most of the processes take place in the background, driven by rule engines and machine learning. For example, the heating controls in my house are an excellent example of a ambient computing platform. Like most European homes, the mine uses hot water radiators and a central boiler. In addition to the central thermostat, each coolant has its own thermostatic valve. These were simple wax actuators that opened and closed the valve, using approximate temperatures. The “4” on one cooler will be pretty much the same on the other.
The ambient computing system it now runs has separate IoT-controlled valves that can treat each room as a separate area, combining temperature sensors, actuators that drive radiator valves, and wireless connections to the central control unit. While these are used to manage room-level temperature, they are part of a more complex system. Once up and running, the system as a whole spent the first month of operation building a thermal model of the house, learning how much heat to put in each area to reach and maintain the target temperature.
All I have to do is set the targets for the system, now it’s free to run, turn the boiler on when necessary and adjust valves to ensure each area is properly heated. I can check an app to see if everything is working the way I intend, and change goals as necessary. No alerts and no unwanted interactions. All that matters is that the rooms are just as warm as they need it to be, when you need it. The complexity of the system is hidden, with a cloud-trained machine learning model running on more restrictive devices in my home.
Importantly, the model is also related to outdoor conditions, trained in the home’s response to outdoor conditions as well as indoor heat sources, and linked to a small digital weather station on my rooftop. If it is not particularly cold outside, the heating will not work for a long time, because it will take longer for the house to cool down.
Perimeter computing provides an intelligent way to work with sensors and actuators, based on their connections and the elastic computing power of the cloud. It’s a way to build smart connectors that can do more than the relatively simple devices you use. Home automation is a logical early adoption of ambient computing technologies, but there are many other options, in industry, in transportation, and in the environment.
Colours, light, movement and form: the surrounding facade
Another key aspect of ambient computing is how information is communicated to us. Instead of complex screens full of information, the surrounding interface might be a shade of blue that changes color as the weather changes or as the stock price moves. You can think of it as the electronic equivalent of old analog dials and lights, or a car’s dashboard: something you can look at and understand what’s going on and decide if you need more information.
It was one of the first common peripheral computing devices napastag, An internet-connected device in the shape of a rabbit that changed color or moved its ears based on external information. You can choose what its tags mean to you, so every Nabaztag becomes a very personal device. This model went even further with a file Microsoft Research Project that made a real-life version of a family watch from the Harry Potter movie, with a mix of physical indicators and custom screens.
The surrounding interface should be easy to understand. It’s not something you have to spend some time decoding. The setup shouldn’t be complicated, with no-code and low-end environments providing a simple event-driven model used to render surrounding applications. Connecting an IoT light to a calendar means your colleagues (and if it’s for work at home or family) know they’re not interrupting you when you’re in an online meeting. Tools like red knotMicrosoft energy automationAnd the IFTTT are the key to building your computing environment from common IoT devices and from simple APIs like webhooks.
We live in a world of computers everywhere, requiring more and more of our attention. But as their power increases and they are distributed around the world, this concern becomes less important. The next step is to make it unignorable, using it in the background and only interacting with it when it’s really necessary.
Mixing ubiquitous computing with IoT sensors and actuators, as well as with the cloud and local artificial intelligence, makes a lot of sense. All of this combines to become another big step toward a sci-fi future where the environment around us responds to our needs before we even know what we want.