Ubiquitous Computing as a Category of Computational Objects

Ubiquitous computing constitutes yet another category of computational objects with distinctive design challenges and possibilities. In its most basic form, ubicomp is about embedding computation into everyday objects, thereby enabling those objects to sense, process, and respond to the actions of others and the surroundings. When these objects are networked together, they are able to share data among each other, resulting in systems and environments of aware and responsive objects—and making computation ever-present. This has the effect of transforming the experiences of these everyday objects and of computers or computation. It also has the effect of transforming how one does design with computation and provides new topics and tactics for political engagement and expression. Specifically, ubicomp brings to the fore the capability to link together computational objects, and that capability can be used to enact politically provocative associations among people, objects, spaces, and actions.

The origins of ubicomp can be traced to research at Xerox PARC in the late 1980s. There, computers scientists, engineers, designers, and social scientists worked together to explore the possibilities and possible effects of embedding computation into objects and dispersing these objects throughout environments. For instance, one of these early technologies was referred to as "tabs." These were essentially small networked computers that could be worn or carried and that would enable all sorts of interactivity among people, objects, and the environment: "doors open only to the right badge wearer, rooms greet people by name, telephone calls can be automatically forwarded to wherever the recipient may be, receptionists actually know where people are, computer terminals retrieve the preferences of whoever is sitting at them, and appointment diaries write themselves" (Weiser 1991, 80). So from the beginning, ubicomp was positioned as a paradigm of interaction and design that was fundamentally different from familiar notions of using computers. In fact, the discourses of ubicomp are usually framed as a departure from computers as they are commonly known. Ubicomp pioneer Mark Weiser (1991, 94) expressed this sentiment in the opening lines of his canonical article "The Computer for the 21st Century" when he stated, "The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it." With ubicomp, this does not mean that computation goes away but that the predominance of the computer as a discrete object diminishes as computation becomes part of every object.2 As a result, modes of interaction and experiences with computation shift from those mediated by keyboard, mouse, and screen to new forms mediated by objects such as tables, chairs, picture frames, coffee cups, teapots, and jewelry.3 This framing of ubicomp as a fundamentally different experience of computation continues today. Phrases such as "ambient intelligence" and the "Internet of Things" work to separate the idea and activities of computing from those beige, silver, or black boxes one thinks of when one thinks of computers and instead prompt visions of computation as distributed, pervasive, and integrated with the stuff of the everyday.

Since the inception of ubicomp the late 1980s, examples of these technologies and their associated capabilities have expanded beyond the walls of research centers as they have become integrated into consumer products. Although ubicomp may not be a common phrase in everyday discussions, experiences with products that suggest the potentials of ubicomp are becoming more commonplace. Consider the Ambient Umbrella,4 one of a line of products from Ambient Devices, a company that works to bring pervasive information technologies into the home. The Ambient Umbrella is composed of an embedded microchip that receives weather forecasts via a wireless Internet connection and a light-emitting diode (LED) embedded in the handle of the umbrella. Through a wireless connection, the umbrella receives a data feed from accuweather.com, which transmits regularly updated weather information culled from a global network of weather stations and satellites. If the forecast is for rain or snow, the umbrella handle pulsates blue light to warn the owner and remind him to take the umbrella along when he ventures outside. This integration of computational sensing and expressive capacities with an everyday object is relatively simple. But when the umbrella is imbued with these computational capacities, it is transformed from an accessory for keeping dry to a computational information display.

The example of the Ambient Umbrella is useful because it shows how ubicomp combines multiple computational qualities and design practices. As a computational designed object, the Ambient Umbrella is a kind of embodied information design that uses the network as a medium of storage and exchange to gather data and then procedurally renders that data in a physically instantiated form. In combining multiple computational qualities and design practices, new kinds of objects and practices emerge. One might not consider an umbrella a computer, but the Ambient Umbrella is a computationally enabled thing. Thinking of umbrellas or other everyday objects as computationally enabled things is relatively novel terrain in design. As the technical issues of embedding computation into everyday objects are resolved and the industry practice shifts from engineering challenges to design possibilities, design practitioners and design scholars need to ask, What does it mean to do design with computation in the context of ubicomp?

 
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